/ Language: English / Genre:antique

Flash and Bones

Kathy Reichs


antiqueKathyReichsFlash and BonesengKathyReichscalibre 0.8.1524.8.2011c9b8b88f-f93d-4ddd-b46a-9dc69964808b1.0

ALSO BY KATHY REICHS

SPIDER BONES

206 BONES

DEVIL BONES

BONES TO ASHES

BREAK NO BONES

CROSS BONES

MONDAY MOURNING

BARE BONES

GRAVE SECRETS

FATAL VOYAGE

DEADLY DÉCISIONS

DEATH DU JOUR

DÉJÀ DEAD

SCRIBNER

A Division of Simon & Schuster, Inc.

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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 © 2011 by Temperance Brennan, L.P.

All rights reserved, including the right to reproduce this book or portions thereof in any form whatsoever. For information address Scribner Subsidiary Rights Department, 1230 Avenue of the Americas, New York, NY 10020.

First Scribner hardcover edition August 2011

SCRIBNER and design are registered trademarks of The Gale Group, Inc., used under license by Simon & Schuster, Inc., the publisher of this work.

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DESIGNED BY ERICH HOBBING

Manufactured in the United States of America

1 3 5 7 9 10 8 6 4 2

Library of Congress Control Number: 2011024475

ISBN 978-1-4391-0241-1

ISBN 978-1-4391-1280-9 (ebook)

For

Declan Rex Reichs

Born July 1, 2010

Contents

Acknowledgments

Chapter 1

Chapter 2

Chapter 3

Chapter 4

Chapter 5

Chapter 6

Chapter 7

Chapter 8

Chapter 9

Chapter 10

Chapter 11

Chapter 12

Chapter 13

Chapter 14

Chapter 15

Chapter 16

Chapter 17

Chapter 18

Chapter 19

Chapter 20

Chapter 21

Chapter 22

Chapter 23

Chapter 24

Chapter 25

Chapter 26

Chapter 27

Chapter 28

Chapter 29

Chapter 30

Chapter 31

Chapter 32

Chapter 33

Chapter 34

Chapter 35

Chapter 36

ACKNOWLEDGMENTS

Flash and Bones would not have been possible without the help of Barry Byrd. Muchas gracias, Byrdman! I owe you.

Scott and Tiffany Smith invited me into their home and included me with the Race Week gang. Thanks. You created a new fan. Marcus Smith and Bryan Hammond welcomed me to the Charlotte Motor Speedway and answered endless questions about NASCAR and the track. Chad Knaus, Jimmie Johnson’s awesome crew chief, provided information on cars and race teams. Marty Smith of ESPN offered the perspective of a media insider. Bruton Smith’s hospitality in the owner’s suite was greatly appreciated.

Drs. Jane Brock, Patty McFeeley, and Mike Graham responded to my queries about ricin. Dr. William C. Rodriguez and Mike Warns answered a million questions each. Sergeant Harold (Chuck) Henson, Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Department, helped with details on policing and law enforcement.

D. G. Martin shared an article on the history of stock car racing, and David Perry graciously donated Real NASCAR: White Lightning, Red Clay, and Big Bill France, by Daniel S. Pierce, University of North Carolina Press, Chapel Hill.

I appreciate the continued support of Chancellor Philip L. Dubois of the University of North Carolina-Charlotte.

I am grateful to my family for their patience and understanding. Amazing how they still put up with my grumpy phases.

Deepest gratitude to my agent, Jennifer Rudolph Walsh, and to my genius editors, Nan Graham and Susan Sandon. I also want to thank all those who work so very hard on my behalf, including: Katherine Monaghan, Paul Whitlatch, Rex Bonomelli, Kara Watson, Simon Littlewood, Gillian Holmes, Rob Waddington, Glenn O’Neill, Kathleen Nishimoto, Lauren Levine, Tracy Fisher, Michelle Feehan, Cathryn Summerhayes, and Raffaella De Angelis. I am also indebted to the Canadian crew, especially to Kevin Hanson, Amy Cormier, and David Millar.

And, of course, I am grateful to my readers. Without you, what’s the point?

If I have forgotten to thank anyone I am truly sorry. Though I tried to be careful, if the book has errors they are my fault.

FLASH AND BONES

LOOKING BACK, I THINK OF IT AS RACE WEEK IN THE RAIN. Thunderboomers almost every day. Sure, it was spring. But these storms were over the top.

In the end, Summer saved my life.

I know. Sounds bizarre.

This is what happened.

Bloated, dark clouds hung low to the ground, but so far no rain.

Lucky break. I’d spent the morning digging up a corpse.

Sound macabre? Just part of the job. I’m a forensic anthropologist. I recover and analyze the dead that present in less than pristine condition—the burned, mummified, mutilated, dismembered, decomposed, and skeletal.

OK. Today’s target wasn’t actually a corpse. I’d been searching for overlooked body parts.

Short version. Last fall a housewife vanished from her Cabarrus County home in rural North Carolina. A week ago, while I was away on a working vacation in Hawaii, a trucker admitted to strangling the woman and burying her body in a sandpit. Impatient, the local cops had sallied forth with shovels and buckets. They delivered the bones in a Mott’s applesauce carton to my employer, the Medical Examiner’s Office, in neighboring Mecklenburg County.

Yesterday, my aloha tan still glowing, I’d begun my analysis. A skeletal inventory revealed that the hyoid, the mandible, and all of the upper incisors and canines were missing.

No teeth, no dental ID. No hyoid, no evidence of strangulation. Dr. Tim Larabee, the Mecklenburg County medical examiner, asked me to have a second go at the sandpit.

Correcting screwups usually makes me cranky. Today I was feeling upbeat.

I’d quickly found the missing bits and dispatched them to the MCME facility in Charlotte. I was en route to a shower, a late lunch, and time with my cat.

It was 1:50 p.m. My sweat-soaked tee was pasted to my back. My hair was yanked into a ratty knot. Sand lined my scalp and undies. Nevertheless, I was humming. Al Yankovic, “White & Nerdy.” What can I say? I’d watched a YouTube video and the tune lodged in my head.

Wind buffeted my Mazda as I merged onto southbound I-85. Slightly uneasy, I glanced at the sky, then thumbed on NPR.

Terry Gross was finishing an interview with W. S. Merwin, the U.S. poet laureate. Both were indifferent to the conditions outside my car.

Fair enough. The show was produced in Philadelphia, five hundred miles north of Dixie.

Terry launched into a teaser about an upcoming guest. I never caught the name.

Beep! Beep! Beep!

The National Weather Service has issued a severe-weather warning for parts of the North Carolina piedmont, including Mecklenburg, Cabarrus, Anson, Stanly, and Union counties. Severe thunderstorms are expected to move through the area within the next hour. Rainfall of one to three inches is anticipated, creating the potential for flash flooding. Atmospheric conditions are favorable for the development of tornadoes. Stay tuned to this station for further updates.

Beep! Beep! Beep!

I tightened my grip on the wheel and goosed my speed to seventy-five. Risky in a sixty-five-mile-an-hour zone, but I wanted to reach home before the deluge.

Moments later Terry was interrupted again, this time by a muted whoop-whoop.

My eyes flicked to the radio.

Whoop!

Feeling stupid, I checked the rearview mirror.

A police cruiser was riding my bumper.

Annoyed, I pulled to the shoulder and lowered my window. When the cop approached, I held out my license.

“Dr. Temperance Brennan?”

“Looking somewhat worse for wear.” I beamed what I hoped was a winning smile.

Johnny Law did not beam back. “That won’t be necessary,” indicating my license.

Puzzled, I looked up at the guy. He was mid-twenties, slim, with an infant mustache that appeared to be going nowhere. A badge on his chest said R. Warner.

“The Concord Police Department received a request from the Mecklenburg County medical examiner to intercept and divert you.”

“Larabee sent the cops to find me?”

“Yes, ma’am. When I arrived at the recovery site, you’d left.”

“Why didn’t he call me directly?”

“Apparently he couldn’t get through.”

Of course not. While digging, I’d locked my iPhone in the car to protect it from sand.

“My phone is in the glove compartment.” No need to alarm Officer Warner. “I’m going to take it out.”

“Yes, ma’am.”

The numbers on the little screen indicated three missed calls from Larabee. Three messages. I listened to the first: “Long story, which I’ll share when you’re back. The Concord PD received a report of a body at the Morehead Road landfill. Chapel Hill wants us to handle it. I’m elbow-deep in an autopsy. Since you’re in the area, I hoped you could swing by to check it out. Joe Hawkins is diverting that way with the van, just in case they’ve actually got something for us.”

The second message was the same as the first. Ditto the third, but more terse. It ended with the inducement: You’re a champ, Tempe.

A landfill in a storm? The champ was suddenly not so chipper.

“Ma’am, we should hurry. The rain won’t hold off much longer.”

“Lead on.” I could not have said this with less enthusiasm.

Warner returned to his cruiser, whoop-whooped, then pulled into traffic. Inwardly cursing Larabee, Warner, and the landfill, I palm-slapped the gearshift and followed.

Traffic on I-85 was unusually heavy for Thursday, midafter-noon. As we approached Concord, I could see that the Bruton Smith Boulevard exit ramp was a parking lot.

And realized what a nightmare this little detour of Larabee’s would be.

The Morehead Road landfill is back-fence neighbor to the Charlotte Motor Speedway, a major stop on the NASCAR circuit. Races would be held there this weekend and next. Local print and broadcast coverage was extensive. Even I knew that tomorrow’s qualifying would determine which lucky drivers made the cut for Saturday’s All-Star Race.

Two hundred thousand avid fans would pour into Charlotte for Race Week. Looking at the sea of SUVs, campers, pickups, and sedans, I guessed that many had already hit town.

Warner rode the shoulder. I followed, ignoring the hostile glares of those cemented in the logjam.

Lights flashing, we snaked through the bedlam on Bruton Smith Boulevard, past the dragway, the dirt track, and a zillion fast-food joints. On the sidelines, the tattooed and tank-topped carried babies, six-packs, coolers, and radios. Vendors sold souvenirs from folding tables beneath improvised tents.

Warner looped the surrealistic geometry of the Speedway itself, made several turns, then rolled to a stop outside a small structure whose siding might once have been blue. Beyond the building loomed a series of mounds resembling a Martian mountain range.

A man emerged and issued Warner a yellow hard hat and a neon orange vest. As they talked, the man pointed at a gravel road rising sharply uphill.

Warner waited while I received my safety gear, then we proceeded up the slope. Trucks rumbled in both directions, engines churning hard going in, humming going out.

When the road leveled, I could see three men standing by an enormous Dumpster. Two wore coveralls. The third wore black pants and a long-sleeved black shirt over a white tee. Joe Hawkins, longtime death investigator for the MCME. All three featured gear identical to that lying on my passenger seat.

Warner nosed up to the Dumpster and parked. I pulled in beside him.

The men watched as I got out and donned my hard hat and vest. Fetching. A perfect complement to my current state of hygiene.

“We gotta quit meeting like this.” Joe and I had parted at the sandpit barely an hour earlier.

The older man stuck out a hand. “Weaver Molene.” He was flushed and sweating and filled his coveralls way beyond their intended capacity.

“Temperance Brennan.” I’d have skipped the handshake, given the black moons under Molene’s nails, but didn’t want to be rude.

“You the coroner?” he asked.

“I work for the medical examiner,” I said.

Molene introduced the younger man as Barcelona Jackson. Jackson was very thin and very black. And very, very nervous.

“Jackson and I work for the company that manages the landfill.”

“Impressive pile of trash,” I said.

“Site’s got a capacity of over two and a half million cubic meters.” Molene ran a dingy hankie across his face. “Friggin’ weird Jackson stumbled onto the one square foot holding a stiff. Or maybe not. Probably dozens out there.”

Jackson had mostly kept his eyes down. At Molene’s words, he raised and then quickly dropped them back to his boots.

“Tell me what you found, sir.”

Though I spoke to Jackson, Molene answered.

“Probably best we show you. And quick.” He pocket-jammed the hankie. “This storm’s coming fast.”

Molene set off at a pace I would have thought impossible for a man of his bulk. Jackson scampered after. I fell into line, paying attention as best I could to the uneven footing. Warner and Hawkins brought up the rear.

I’ve excavated in landfills, am familiar with the aroma of eau de dump, a delicate blend of methane and carbon dioxide with traces of ammonia, hydrogen sulfide, nitrogen, hydrogen chloride, and carbon monoxide added for spice. I braced for the stench. Didn’t happen.

Good odor management, guys. Or maybe it was Mother Nature. Wind swirled dirt into little cyclones and tumbled cellophane wrappers, plastic bags, and torn paper across the landscape.

Our course took us the length of the active landfill, down a slope, then around a series of what appeared to be closed areas. Instead of raw earth, the tops of the older mounds were covered with grass.

As we walked, the rumble of trucks receded, and the whine of fine-tuned engines grew louder. Based on the changing acoustics, I figured the Speedway lay over a rise to our right.

After ten minutes, Molene stopped at the base of a truncated hillock. Though tentative grass greened the top, the side facing us was scarred and pitted, like a desert butte gouged by eons of wind.

Molene said something I didn’t catch. I was focused on the exposed stratigraphy.

Unlike the sandstone or shale that make up metamorphic rock, the mound’s layers were composed of flattened Pontiacs and Posturepedics, of squashed Pepsis, Pop-Tarts, Pringles, and Pampers.

Molene pointed to a crater in a brown-green layer eight feet above our heads, then to an object lying about two yards off the base of the mound. His explanation was lost to a clap of thunder.

Didn’t matter. It was obvious Jackson’s “stiff” had dropped from the mound, probably dislodged by the previous day’s storm.

I crossed to the thing and squatted. Molene, Warner, and Hawkins clustered around me but remained standing. Jackson kept his distance.

The object was a drum, approximately twenty inches in diameter and thirty inches high. Its cover lay off to one side.

“Looks like a metal container of some kind,” I said without looking up. “It’s too rusted to make out a logo or label.”

“Flip it,” Molene shouted. “Jackson and I turned the thing bottom up to protect the stuff inside.”

I tried. It weighed a ton.

Hawkins squatted, and together, we muscled the drum upright. Its interior was filled with a solid black mass.

I leaned close. Something pale was suspended in the dark fill, but the pre-storm gloom obscured all detail.

I was reaching for my Maglite when lightning sparked.

A human hand flashed white in the electric brilliance.

Dissolved to black.

IRAN MY BEAM OVER THE INKY MATRIX.

The white inclusion was unquestionably a human hand.

The fill was rock-hard but crumbling at the exposed edges. I suspected asphalt. The size of the drum suggested a thirty-five-gallon capacity.

Thirty seconds of discussion, and we had a plan.

Warner and Jackson would stand guard while the rest of us returned to the management office. Though Jackson’s look said he’d rather be elsewhere, he offered no protest.

The clouds burst as Hawkins, Molene, and I picked our way back. We arrived mud-coated and thoroughly soaked.

To my dismay, two vehicles waited a short distance down the dirt road, motors idling, wipers slapping. I recognized the driver of the Ford Focus.

“Sonofabitch,” I said.

“What?” Behind me, Molene was breathing hard.

“Reporters.” I waved a hand in the direction of the cars.

“I didn’t talk to no one. I swear.”

“Their scanners probably picked up the radio transmission from the cops to the ME.”

“You’re kidding.”

“It’s Race Week.” I made no attempt to hide my irritation. “A murder at the Speedway would make splashy headlines.”

Seeing us, the reporters emerged from their cars and slip-slid to the checkpoint. One was a mushroom-shaped man holding an umbrella. The other was a woman in a slicker and pink vinyl boots.

The guard looked a question in our direction. Molene gestured “no” with both hands.

Denied access, the pair shouted through the downpour.

“How long has the body been out there?”

“Is it the kid who went missing from Bar Carolina?”

“Any tie-in to the Speedway?”

“Dr. Brennan—”

“Is the ME planning to—”

Hawkins, Molene, and I hurried into the office. The door slammed, cutting off the barrage of questions.

“Any chance it could be the Leonitus kid?” Hawkins referred to a young woman who’d vanished two years earlier after a night of barhopping with friends.

“How old is that sector?” I asked Molene.

“I’ll have to check the records.”

“Ballpark.” I removed my hard hat and vest and held them at arm’s length. Not that it mattered. I was dripping as much as they were.

“We stopped dumping in that area in 2005. That layer, I’d say late nineties to maybe 2002.”

“Then the vic ain’t Leonitus,” Hawkins said.

Or parts of her, I thought.

While Hawkins and Molene drove a motorized cart back out to retrieve the drum, I phoned Larabee. He said what I expected: See you tomorrow.

So much for lounging with my cat.

Thirty minutes later Jackson’s prize sat on plastic sheeting in the ME van, oozing muddy water and flecks of rust. Five minutes after that, it was making its way to Charlotte along with the Cabarrus County sandpit teeth and bones.

Officer Warner escorted me back to the interstate. After that I was on my own.

Between the downpour, rush hour, and the Race Week frenzy, vehicles were backed up to Minneapolis. Fortunately, that was opposite to my direction of travel, though westbound traffic was also heavy. While lurching and braking my way toward home, I wondered about the person we’d just recovered.

A whole body? A tight fit for a thirty-five-gallon container, but not impossible. Dismembered parts? I hoped not. A partial corpse would mean a return to the landfill for a systematic search.

That prospect was decidedly unappealing.

Friday promised a repeat of Thursday. Hot and sticky with more afternoon storms.

Wouldn’t affect me. I’d be stuck in the lab all day.

After a quick breakfast of granola and yogurt, I drove downtown. Or uptown, as Charlotteans prefer.

The Mecklenburg County medical examiner occupies one end of a featureless brick box that spent its early years as a Sears Garden Center. The box’s other end houses satellite offices of the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Department. Devoid of architectural charm save a slight rounding of the edges, the building is located at College and Tenth, just a hair outside the fashionable heart of uptown. Though plans exist to develop the site and move the facility, so far the MCME has stayed put.

Works for me. The place is just ten minutes from my town house.

At 8:05 I parked in the small tentacle of lot facing the MCME entrance, gathered my purse, and headed for the double glass doors. Across College, a half-dozen men sat or leaned on a wall bordering a large vacant lot. All wore the hodgepodge of ratty clothing that is the uniform of the homeless.

Beyond them, a black woman was muscling a stroller along the sidewalk toward the county services building, struggling with the uneven pavement.

The woman stopped to tug upward on her tube top. Her eyes drifted in my direction. I waved. She didn’t wave back.

Entering the vestibule, I tapped on a window above a counter to my left. A chubby woman turned in her chair and peered through the glass. Her blouse was sharply pressed, her hair permed and fixed primly in place.

Eunice Flowers has worked for the MCME since sometime back in the eighties, when it moved from the basement of the old Law Enforcement Center to its present location. Monday through Friday, she screens visitors, blessing some with entry, turning others away. She also types reports, organizes documents, and keeps track of every shred of information generated throughout the analysis of the dead.

Smiling, Mrs. Flowers buzzed me in. “You were a busy lady yesterday.”

“Very,” I said. “Anyone else here?”

“Dr. Larabee will be in shortly. Dr. Siu is lecturing at the university. Dr. Hartigan is in Chapel Hill.”

“Joe?”

“Gone to collect some poor soul from a Dumpster. Bless his heart. It’s gonna be another hot one today.” Mrs. Flowers’s vowels could have landed her a role in Gone With the Wind.

“Is the landfill body getting any attention?”

“Made the Observer. Local section. I’ve answered a half-dozen calls already.”

Mrs. Flowers’s tidiness includes not just her person but everything around her. At her workstation, Post-it notes hang equidistant, paper stacks are squared, pens, staplers, and scissors are stowed when idle. It is an orderliness of which I am incapable. Unnecessarily, she adjusted a photo of her cocker spaniel.

“Do you still have the paper?”

“I’d like it back, please.” She handed me her neatly folded copy. “The Belk ad is good for twenty percent off on linens.”

“Of course.”

“The consult requests are on your desk. I believe Joe placed everything in the stinky room before he left.”

The facility has a pair of autopsy rooms, each with a single table. The smaller of the two has special ventilation to combat foul odors.

For decomps and floaters. My kind of cases.

Good choice, Hawkins. Though the sandpit bones would be relatively aroma-free, there was no telling about the landfill vic. And I was uncertain how best to free the remains from the asphalt. Depending on their condition, things could get messy.

Passing the cubicles used by the death investigators, I checked the erasable board on the back wall. Five new arrivals had been entered in black Magic Marker. A newborn found dead in her bed. A man washed ashore at Mountain Island Lake. A woman bludgeoned with a frying pan in her kitchen on Sugar Creek Road.

My sandpit recovery had been designated MCME 226-11. Though the bones and teeth were probably those of the missing housewife, that assumption could always prove false. Thus, a new case number was assigned.

The landfill remains had been designated MCME 227-11.

My office is in back, near those of the three pathologists. The square footage is such that, were I not on staff, the space might have been used for the storage of buckets and mops.

Unlocking the door, I tossed the newspaper onto my desk, dropped into the chair, and placed my purse in a drawer. Two consult requests lay on the blotter, both signed by Tim Larabee.

I started with the Observer. The article was on page three of the local section, just six lines of copy. The byline said Earl Byrne, the mushroom guy I’d spotted in the Focus.

My name was mentioned, and the fact that remains had been transported from the Morehead Road landfill to the ME office. I figured Byrne had seen Hawkins and Molene load the drum into the van. Combining that with the radio transmission from the Concord cops, he’d decided the story was solid.

Fair enough. Maybe exposure would help with an ID.

I pulled a pair of forms from plastic mini-shelving on a filing cabinet at my back, filled in the case numbers, and wrote brief descriptions of each set of remains and the circumstances surrounding their discoveries. Then I went to the locker room, changed to surgical scrubs, and crossed to the stinky room.

The sandpit bones were on the counter, in the brown evidence bag in which I’d placed them.

The landfill drum sat atop its mud-caked sheeting on a morgue gurney.

Since the missing housewife was higher up the queue, I decided to start there.

After assembling camera, calipers, clipboard, and a magnifying lens, I accessorized with a paper apron and mask and snapped on latex gloves. No match for the hard hat and vest, but the look was elegant in its own way.

By ten-fifteen I was done. x-rays, measurement, and gross and microscopic observation revealed that the bones and teeth were compatible with the rest of the sandpit skeleton. Dental analysis would confirm the finding, but I was confident the parts I’d recovered belonged to the missing housewife.

And that she had indeed been murdered.

The hyoid, a delicate U-shaped bone from her throat, showed fractures on each of its wings. Such trauma almost always results from manual strangulation.

I was finalizing my notes when the phone rang in a cadence that indicated the call was internal.

“I have a gentleman here who wishes to see you.” Mrs. Flowers sounded flustered.

“Can’t Joe deal with him?”

“He’s still out.”

“I’m trying to focus on these cases,” I said.

“The gentleman says he has information that is extremely important.”

“Information about what?”

“The body from the landfill.”

“I can’t discuss that yet.”

“He thinks he knows who it is.” Hushed but excited.

“D. B. Cooper has finally turned up?” Snarky, but I’d heard this line many times before.

There was a moment of prim silence.

“Dr. Brennan. This man is not a crackpot.”

“What makes you so sure?”

“I’ve seen his picture in People magazine.”

GENERATION? UPBRINGING? HORMONES? I’VE NO CLUE THE reason, but in the presence of attractive Y-chromosomers, Mrs. Flowers blushes and her voice goes breathy.

“Dr. Brennan, I’d like to present Wayne Gamble.”

I looked up.

Standing in my doorway was a compact man with intense brown eyes and dark blond hair cut short and combed straight back. He wore jeans and a black knit polo with a Hilderman Motorsports logo stitched in red.

I laid down my pen.

Gamble stepped into the office and held out a hand. His grip was firm but not a testosterone crusher.

“Please have a seat.”

I gestured at a chair on the far wall. Meaning six feet from my desk. Gamble dragged it forward, sat, and planted his palms on his knees.

“Can I get you anything?” Marilyn crooning birthday wishes to the prez. “Water? A soft drink?”

Gamble shook his head. “No, ma’am.”

Mrs. Flowers remained fixed in the hall.

“Perhaps it’s best if you close the door,” I said gently.

Cheeks flaming, Mrs. Flowers did as requested.

“What can I do for you, Mr. Gamble?”

For a moment the man just stared at his hands. Reconsidering? Choosing his words?

I wondered at his reticence. After all, he’d come to me. Why such caution?

“I’m the jackman for Stupak’s fifty-nine car.”

My confusion must have been obvious.

“The Sprint Cup Series? Sandy Stupak?” he said.

“He’s a NASCAR driver.”

“Sorry. Yeah. Stupak drives the fifty-nine Chevy for Hilderman Motorsports. I’m on his pit crew.”

“Thus your photo in People.”

Gamble gave a self-deprecating grin. “They did a spread on racing and I got caught in some of the shots. The photographer was aiming at Sandy.”

“You’re in town for the Coca-Cola 600?” Flaunting my minuscule knowledge of NASCAR.

“Yeah. Actually, I live in Kannapolis, just down the road. Raised there.” Again Gamble hesitated, obviously uncomfortable. “My sister, Cindi, was two years older than me.”

The verb tense clued me where this was going.

“Cindi went missing her senior year of high school.”

I waited out another pause.

“I read in the paper you found a body in the dump out by the Speedway. I’m wondering if it could be her.”

“When did your sister disappear?”

“1998.”

Molene thought the drum holding our John/Jane Doe had eroded from an area of the landfill active at that time. I kept this fact to myself. “Tell me about her.”

Gamble pulled a snapshot from his pocket and flipped it onto my desk. “That was taken just a couple of weeks before she went missing.”

Cindi Gamble looked like she could have modeled for yogurt ads. Her teeth were perfect, her skin flawless and lousy with health. She had a blond pixie bob and wore a silver loop in each ear.

“Are those cars on her earrings?” Returning the photo.

“Cindi wanted to be a NASCAR driver in the worst way. Drove go-karts from the time she was twelve, moved up to legends.”

Again, I must have looked lost.

“Little single-seat cars for beginners. Legends driving trains kids so they can advance to real short-course racing.”

I nodded, not really understanding.

Gamble didn’t see. His eyes were on the photo still in his hand. “Funny how life turns out. In high school I was all about football and beer. Cindi hung with the science geeks. Loved cars and engines. NASCAR was her dream, not mine.”

Though anxious for Gamble to get on with his story, I didn’t interrupt.

“The summer before her senior year, Cindi started dating another wannabe driver, a guy named Cale Lovette. That fall, Cindi and Cale both vanished. Bang. Gone without a trace. No one’s seen them since.”

Gamble’s eyes met mine. In them I saw apprehension. And resurrected pain.

“My folks went crazy. Posted flyers all over town. Handed them out in malls. Nothing.” Gamble wiped his palms on his jeans. “I’ve got to know. Could that body be my sister?”

“What makes you think Cindi is dead?”

“The police said the two of them left town together. But Cindi’s whole life was NASCAR. I mean, she was on fire to drive. What better place to do that than Charlotte? Why would she just pick up and leave? And she’s never turned up anywhere else.”

“There was an investigation?”

Gamble snorted in disgust. “The cops poked around for a while, decided Cindi and Cale took off to get married. She was too young to do that without parental approval.”

“You doubt that theory?”

Gamble’s shoulders rose, fell. “Hell, I don’t know what to believe. Cindi didn’t confide in me. But I’m sure my folks would never have agreed to her marrying Cale.”

“Why?”

“She was seventeen. He was twenty-four. And rolled with a pretty rough crowd.”

“Rough?”

“White-supremacist types. Hated blacks, Jews, immigrants. Hated the government. Back then I suspected Cale’s racist buddies might be involved. But what would they have against Cindi? I don’t know what to think.”

Gamble shoved the photo back in his pocket.

“Mr. Gamble, it’s unlikely that the person we recovered is your sister. I’m about to begin my analysis. If you’ll leave contact information, I’ll inform you when I’ve finished.”

I passed across pen and paper. Gamble scribbled something and handed them back.

“Should it prove necessary, could you obtain Cindi’s dental records?”

“Yeah.”

“Would you or another maternal relative be willing to provide a DNA sample?”

“It’s just me now.”

“What about Lovette?”

“I think Cale’s father still lives around here. If I can find a listing, I’ll give him a call.”

Gamble got to his feet.

I rose and opened the door.

“I’m truly sorry for your loss,” I said.

“I just keep pedaling to stay out front.”

With that odd comment, he strode down the hall.

I stood a moment, trying to recall news stories about Cindi Gamble and Cale Lovette. The disappearance of a seventeen-year-old kid should have generated a headline or two. Angel Leonitus certainly had.

I could not remember seeing anything on Gamble.

Vowing to research the case, I headed back to the stinky room.

The landfill drum was as I’d left it. I was circling the gurney, considering options, when Tim Larabee pushed through the door wearing street clothes.

Mecklenburg County’s chief medical examiner is a runner. Not the healthy knock-out-three-miles-in-the-neighborhood variety but the train-for-a-marathon-in-the-Gobi-Desert zealot. And it shows. Larabee’s body is sinewy and his cheeks are gaunt.

“Oh boy.” Larabee’s deep-set eyes were pointed at the gurney.

“Or girl,” I said. “Take a look.” I indicated the open end of the drum.

Larabee crossed to it and peered at the hand. “Any idea how much more is in there?”

I shook my head. “Can’t x-ray because of the metal and the density of the fill.”

“What’s your take?”

“Someone stowed a body or body parts, then filled the drum with asphalt. The hand was up top and became visible when the lid came off and the asphalt eroded.”

“Tight fit for an adult, but I’ve seen it done. Any dates on the sector where they found this thing?”

“A landfill worker said that area of the dump closed in 2005.”

“So it’s not Leonitus.”

“No. She’s too recent.”

“As of Monday, we got us another MP. Man came from Atlanta to Charlotte for Race Week. Wife reported him missing.” Larabee was studying the drum. “How will you get it out?”

How will I get it out?

Great.

Though I’d never freed remains from asphalt, I had liberated corpses from cement. In each case, because fats from the surface tissues had created a nonbinding surface, a small void had surrounded the body. I anticipated a similar situation here.

“The drum is no problem. We’ll cut through that. The asphalt is trickier. One option is to saw at horizontal and lateral planes to the block, then use an air hammer to create propagation cracks.”

“Or?”

“The other option is to chisel away as much asphalt as possible, then dip the block in solvent to dissolve what remains.”

“What kind of solvent?”

“Acetone or turpentine.”

Larabee thought a moment, then, “Asphalt and cement work damn well as sealants, so there might be fresh tissue preserved in there. Go with Plan A. Joe can help.”

“Joe’s out on a call.”

“He just got back.” Larabee changed the subject. “Have you examined the new sandpit bones?”

“Everything is consistent with the rest of the skeleton.”

“Music to my ears.” Larabee chin-cocked the drum. “Let me know how it goes.”

I was taking photos when Hawkins entered the autopsy room and strode to the gurney.

Cadaver-thin, with dark circles under puffy lower lids, bushy brows, and dyed black hair combed straight back from his face, Joe Hawkins looks like an older and hairier version of Larabee.

“How we going to crack this sucker?” Hawkins rapped gnarled knuckles on the drum.

I explained Plan A.

Without a word, Hawkins went in search of the necessary tools. I was finishing with overview shots when he returned, dressed in blue surgical scrubs identical to mine.

Hawkins and I donned goggles, then he inserted a blade, plugged in, and revved the handheld power saw.

The room filled with the whine of metal on metal and the acrid smell of hot steel. Rust particles arced and dropped to the gurney.

Five minutes of cutting, then Hawkins laid down the saw and tugged and twisted with his hands. The segment came free.

More cutting. More tugging.

Eventually a black lump lay on the gurney, and an exoskeleton of torn metal lay on the floor.

Joe killed the saw. Raising my goggles to my forehead, I stepped forward.

The asphalt cast was the exact shape and size of the drum’s interior. Objects grazed its surface, pale and ghostly as morgue flesh.

The curve of a jaw? The edge of a foot? I couldn’t be sure.

Hawkins switched to the air hammer and, with some direction from me, began working downward toward the body parts. As cracks formed, I freed chunks of asphalt and placed them on the counter. Later I would examine each and take samples so chemists could determine their elemental composition.

Maybe useful, maybe not. Better to be safe. One never knew what would later prove significant.

Slowly, the counter filled.

One hunk. Three. Nine. Fifteen.

As the cast shrank, its contour changed. A form took shape, like a figure emerging from a block of marble being sculpted.

The top of a head. An elbow. The curve of a hip.

At my signal, Joe set down the chisel. Using hand tools, I went at the remaining asphalt.

Forty minutes later a naked body lay curled on the stainless steel. The legs were flexed with the thighs tight to the chest. The head was down, the forehead pressed to the upraised knees. The feet pointed in opposite directions, toes spread at impossible angles. One arm L’ed backward. The other stretched high, fingers spread as though clawing for escape.

A sweet, fetid odor now rode the air. No surprise.

Though shriveled and discolored, overall, the cadaver was reasonably well preserved.

But that was changing fast.

HAWKINS BENT SIDEWAYS AND SQUINTED THROUGH BLACK-framed glasses that had gone in and out of vogue many times since their purchase.

“Dude’s hanging a full package.”

I joined him and checked the genitals.

“Definitely male,” I said. “And adult.”

I shot close-ups of the outstretched hand, then asked Hawkins to bag it. The fingers first spotted by Jackson were now in pretty bad shape, but those embedded deeper in the asphalt retained significant soft tissue. And nails, under which trace evidence might be found.

While Hawkins sealed the hands in brown paper sacks, I filled out a case marker and adjusted camera settings. As I moved around the body, shooting from all angles, Hawkins brushed away black crumbs and positioned the card.

“Looks like this will be one for Doc Larabee.”

Pathologists work with freshly dead or relatively intact corpses to determine identity, cause of death, and postmortem interval. They cut Y-incisions on torsos and remove skullcaps to extract innards and brains.

Anthropologists answer the same questions when the flesh is degraded or gone and the skeleton is the only game left. We eyeball, measure, and x-ray bone, and take samples for microscopic, chemical, or DNA analysis.

Hawkins was guessing that a regular autopsy might be possible.

“Let’s see how he looks stretched out,” I said.

Hawkins snugged the gurney to the autopsy table, and together we transferred MCME 227-11 and rolled him to his back. While I pulled on his ankles, Hawkins pushed downward on his legs. It took some effort, but eventually the John Doe lay flat on the stainless steel.

The man’s face was grotesque, the features distorted by a combination of hot asphalt and subsequent expansion and contraction while in the landfill. His abdomen was green and collapsed due to the action of anaerobic bacteria, the little buggers that start working from their home base in the gut once the heart stops beating.

Based on the amount of surface decomp, I guessed gray cells and organs might remain.

“I think you’re right, Joe.”

I pried loose the hand that had been twisted behind the man’s back. The fingers had shriveled, and the tips had suffered some skin slippage.

“We might get prints. Try rehydrating for an ink and roll.”

I was asking Hawkins to plump the fingertips by soaking and then injecting them with embalming fluid. Hopefully, he could obtain ridge detail for submission to national and state databases.

Hawkins nodded.

“Let’s get height,” I said.

Hawkins positioned a measuring rod beside the body, and I read the marker. As I jotted my estimate, he pried open the jaws. After thirty-five years on the job, he needed no direction.

MCME 227-11 had not been big on oral hygiene. His dentition contained no fillings or restorations. A molar and a premolar were missing on the upper left. Three of the remaining molars had cavities that could have housed small birds. The tongue side of every tooth was stained a deep coffee brown.

“The wisdom teeth have all erupted, but the first and second molars show very little wear,” I observed aloud.

“Young fella.”

Nodding agreement, I added my age estimate to the case form, completing a preliminary biological profile.

Male. White. Thirty to forty years of age. Five feet seven. Smoker. Dental records unlikely.

Not much, but a start for the pathologist.

“Finish with the photos, shoot some full-body and dental X-rays, then put him back in the cooler for Dr. Larabee. And let’s send a sample of asphalt over to the crime lab,” I said.

I stripped off my mask, apron, and gloves, tossed them in the biohazard pail, then went to update my boss.

Larabee was in his office, talking to a man with salt-and-pepper hair and an NFL neck. Tan sport jacket, open-collar blue shirt, no tie.

Seeing that Larabee had a visitor, I started to move on. Blue Shirt’s words caused me to linger. He was asking about MCME 227-11, the John Doe whom Hawkins and I had just examined.

“—body from the landfill could be Ted Raines, the guy who went missing earlier this week.”

“The man visiting from Atlanta.”

“Yeah. He came to make business calls, but mainly for Race Week. Bought tickets for the All-Star Race tomorrow night, the Nationwide and Coca-Cola 600 next weekend. Visited clients, as planned, on Monday. After that he stopped calling home or answering his cell phone. Wife’s gone apeshit. Thinks something bad happened in Charlotte.”

“We haven’t begun the autopsy.” Larabee sounded anxious to be rid of the guy. “An anthropologist will first assess the condition of the remains.”

A rubber sole squeaked on the tile behind me. I turned. Hawkins was staring past me toward Larabee’s half-open door, scowling deeply.

“Next of kin are coming out of the woodwork,” I said, feeling guilty at having been caught eavesdropping.

Still scowling, Hawkins continued down the hall.

Allrighty, then.

I photocopied my case form and gave it to Mrs. Flowers to deliver to Larabee.

My watch said 1:48 p.m.

I considered my options. I’d finished with the sandpit bones. The landfill John Doe was now Larabee’s problem. Since I work only when anthropology cases come in, and there was nothing to keep me at the MCME, the afternoon was mine to spend as I chose.

I chose to placate my cat.

Birdie was miffed. First I’d dumped him with a neighbor while I was away in Hawaii. Then, his first day home, I’d abandoned him to dig up a sandpit.

Or maybe it was the thunder rumbling again. Birdie hates storms.

“Come on out.” I waggled a saucer at floor level. “I’ve got lo mein.”

Birdie held position, entrenched beneath the sideboard.

“Fine.” I placed the noodles on the floor. “It’s here when you want it.”

I pulled a Diet Coke from the fridge, served myself from the little white carton I’d picked up at Baoding, and settled at the kitchen table. Opening my laptop, I Googled the names Cindi Gamble and Cale Lovette.

The results were useless. Most led to fan sites for Lyle Lovett.

I tried Cindi Gamble alone. The name generated links to a Face-book page, and to stories about a woman mauled to death by a tiger.

I paused to consider. And to slurp lo mein.

Local disappearance. Local paper.

I tried the online archives of The Charlotte Observer. 1998.

On September 27 a short article updated the case of a twelve-year-old girl missing for nine months. Nothing on Cindi Gamble.

More lo mein.

Why would the disappearance of a seventeen-year-old kid receive no coverage?

I began checking sites devoted to finding MPs and to securing names for unidentified bodies.

Neither Cindi Gamble nor Cale Lovette was registered on the Doe Network.

I switched to the North American Missing Persons Network.

Nothing.

I was logging on to NamUs.gov when thunder cracked and lightning streaked big-time. A white blur shot from beneath the sideboard and disappeared through the dining room door.

The kitchen dimmed and rain came down hard. I got up to turn on lights and check windows.

Which didn’t take long.

I live on the grounds of a nineteenth-century manor-turned-condo-complex lying just off the queens University campus. Sharon Hall. A little slice of Dixie. Red brick, white pediment, shutters, and columns.

My little outbuilding is nestled among ancient magnolias. The Annex. Annex to what? No one knows. The two-story structure appears on none of the estate’s original plans. The hall is there. The coach house. The herb and formal gardens. No annex. Clearly an afterthought.

Guesses by family and friends have included smokehouse, hothouse, outhouse, and kiln. I’m not much concerned with the architect’s original purpose. Barely twelve hundred square feet, the Annex suits my needs. Bedroom and bath up. Kitchen, dining room, parlor, and study down.

Finding myself suddenly single over a decade ago, I’d rented the place as a stopgap measure. Contentedness? Laziness? Lack of motivation? All these years down the road, I still call it home.

Hatches battened, I returned to my laptop.

For naught. Like the other sites, NamUs had nothing on Gamble or Lovette.

Frustrated, I gave up and shifted to e-mail.

Forty-seven messages. My eyes went to number twenty-four.

Flashbulb image. Andrew Ryan, Lieutenant-détective, Section des crimes contre la personne, Sûreté du Québec. Tall, lanky, sandy hair, blue eyes.

I am forensic anthropologist for the Bureau du coroner in la Belle Province. Same deal as with the MCME. I go to the lab when an anthropology consult is requested. Ryan is a homicide detective with the Quebec provincial police. For years Ryan and I have worked together, with him detecting and me analyzing vics.

From time to time we have also played together. And Ryan plays very well with others. Many others, it turned out. Ryan and I hadn’t been an item for almost a year.

Currently, Ryan’s only child, Lily, was in Ontario, enrolled in yet another drug rehab program. Daddy had taken leave to be there with daughter.

I read Ryan’s e-mail.

Though witty and charming, when it comes to correspondence, Monsieur le Détective is not Victor Hugo. He wrote that he and Lily were well. That his short-term rental apartment had crappy pipes. That he would phone.

I responded in kind. No nostalgia, no sentimentality, no personal updates.

After hitting send, I sat a moment, a tiny knot tightening in my gut.

Screw prudence.

I dialed Ryan’s cell. He answered on the second ring.

“Call a plumber.”

Merci, madame. I will give your suggestion serious consideration.”

“How’s Lily?”

“Who knows?” Ryan sighed. “The kid’s saying all the right things, but she’s smart and a champ at working people. What’s new in North Carolina?”

Share? Why not? He was a cop. I could use his input.

I told Ryan about the sandpit and landfill cases. About the landfill’s proximity to the Charlotte Motor Speedway. About my conversation with Wayne Gamble.

“Gamble is jackman on Sandy Stupak’s crew?”

“Yes.”

“The Sprint Cup Series driver?” Finally Ryan sounded a wee bit animated.

“Don’t tell me you’re a NASCAR fan.”

Bien sûr, madame. Well, to be accurate, I’m a Jacques Villeneuve fan. I used to follow Indy and Formula One. When Villeneuve made the switch to NASCAR, I went with him.”

“Who’s Jacques Villeneuve?”

“Seriously?” Ryan’s shock sounded genuine.

“No. I’m testing to see if you’re bullshitting me.”

“Jacques Villeneuve won the 1995 CART Championship, the 1995 Indianapolis 500, and the 1997 Formula One World Championship, making him only the third driver after Mario Andretti and Emerson Fittipaldi to accomplish that.”

“What’s CART?”

“Championship Auto Racing Teams. It’s complicated, but it was the name of a governing body for open-wheel cars, the kind that race the Indy. The group doesn’t exist under that name now.”

“But you’re not talking stock cars.”

“Hardly.”

“I’m going to go out on a limb here and guess Villeneuve is Quebecois.”

“Born in Saint-Jean-sur-Richelieu, he still has a home in Montreal. You know the course out on Île Notre-Dame?”

Ryan was referring to a track at Parc Jean-Drapeau on Île Notre-Dame, a man-made island in the Saint Lawrence River. Each year during Grand Prix Week, you could hear the whine of Formula 1 engines even miles away at our lab.

“Yes,” I said.

“Jacques’s father, Gilles, also drove Formula One. He was killed during qualifying for the 1982 Belgian Grand Prix. That year the track on Île Notre-Dame was renamed Circuit Gilles Villeneuve in his honor.”

“It’s a road course, not an oval, right?”

“Yes. The Formula One Canadian Grand Prix is run there. So are the NASCAR Canadian Tire Series, the NASCAR Nationwide series, and a number of other events.”

Grand Prix Week in Montreal is like Race Week in Charlotte. Bucks flow like water, making merchants, restaurateurs, hoteliers, and bar owners giddy with joy.

“You surprise me, Detective. I’d no idea you follow auto racing.”

“I’m a man of many talents, Dr. Brennan. Find us a backseat and I’ll race your—”

“Keep me in the loop on Lily.”

After disconnecting with Ryan, I deleted twelve other e-mails, ignored the rest.

I was considering alternate ways to research Cindi Gamble’s disappearance when the landline rang.

“How you doing, sugar britches?”

Great. My ex-husband. Or almost ex. Though we’d been separated for over a decade, Pete and I had never bothered with paperwork or courts. Weird, since he’s a lawyer.

“Don’t call me that,” I said.

“Sure, butter bean. How’s the Birdcat?”

“Totally freaked by the storm. How’s Boyd?”

Boyd is typically the reason I hear from my ex. If I’m in Charlotte, I take care of the chow when Pete has to travel.

“Unhappy with the current divisive climate in Washington.”

“Is he coming for a visit?”

“No. We’re cool.”

A few months back, almost-fifty Pete had slipped a ring onto the finger of twentysomething-D-cup Summer, creating the need for an unmarital status that was legal and official. Currently, that was the second most frequent reason I heard from Pete.

“I’ve yet to receive papers from your lawyer,” I said. “You need to goose—”

“That’s not why I’m calling.”

I know Janis Petersons like I know the inside of my ear. Twenty years of marriage will do that to people. He sounded tense.

I waited.

“I need a favor,” Pete said.

“Uh-huh.”

“It’s about Summer.”

Warning bells clanged in my brain.

“I want you to talk to her.”

“I don’t even know her, Pete.”

“It’s probably just the wedding. But she seems”—silver-tongued Mr. Petersons searched for a descriptor—“unhappy.”

“Marriage planning is stressful.” True. But if Bridezilla held auditions in Charlotte, Summer would be a shoo-in.

“Could you feel her out? See what’s up?”

“Summer and I—”

“It’s important to me, Tempe.”

“I’ll give her a call.”

“It might be better if you invite her to your place. You know. ‘Girls sharing a glass of wine’ kind of thing?”

“Sure.” Masking my horror at the thought. And my annoyance at Pete’s failure to bear in mind that I’d popped my final cork years ago.

“Who knows, buttercup?” Relief put a bounce in Pete’s tone. “You might find you like her.”

I’d have preferred hemorrhoids to a conversation with Pete’s dimwit fiancée.

THAT NIGHT’S STORM MADE THURSDAY’S LOOK LIKE A Fairyland sprinkle. I awoke to windows papered with soggy magnolia leaves and blossoms.

And a Chet Baker ringtone.

Relocating Birdie to my left side, I picked up my iPhone. Through one half-raised lid, I could see that the caller was Larabee. I clicked on.

“Hello.” I did that thing you do when trying to sound wide awake.

“Were you sleeping?”

“No. No. What’s up?”

“We didn’t get a chance to talk before you left.”

“I had errands to run.”

“Listen, a guy came to see me yesterday. He’s wondering if the landfill John Doe could be this Ted Raines guy who went missing earlier this week.”

I sat up and stuffed a pillow behind my head. Birdie stretched all four legs and spread his toes.

“I seriously doubt that drum went into the landfill this week. What’s Raines’s story?”

“He’s a thirty-two-year-old white male. Married, one kid. Lives in Atlanta, works for CDC.”

Larabee was referring to the government’s Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

“How tall is he?”

“Five-eight.”

Males tend to embellish their actual height, and measurements taken from corpses are often inaccurate. The extra inch wasn’t a problem. Raines fit my profile. But Larabee knew that. So why was he calling?

“Didn’t Mrs. Flowers give you my prelim?” I asked.

“I wanted your take.”

“Given what you say, there’s nothing to exclude him based on physical characteristics.”

Birdie recurled into a very small ball.

“What about PMI?” Larabee wanted to know how long I thought the John Doe had been dead.

“Other than Molene’s speculation that the drum came from a sector of the landfill active during the late nineties, and the fact that the thing is old and rusty, I’ve nothing more to go on. Could be a month. Could be a decade. But I doubt it was less than a week.”

“Do you have a gut?”

“You were right about the asphalt. It created an airtight envelope and kept scavengers away from the body, so the vic is in pretty good shape. But the drum is toast. Given its condition and location, I think the guy was in there a while.”

“He have anything with him? Clothes, personal items, maybe a social security number?”

“Zip.”

“Guess I can rule out natural death.”

“Did Hawkins manage to get prints?” I asked.

“Six. I’ll have them run through AFIS.” The Automated Fingerprint Identification System, a national database.

“Can Raines’s wife get dental records?”

“I wanted to be sure there was a point before asking.”

“Was he a smoker?”

“I’ll find out.”

“You’re doing the autopsy this morning?”

“As soon as I hang up.”

I remembered the man in Larabee’s office the previous afternoon. “Who was the next of kin?”

“Big guy, arms like caissons?”

“Yeah.”

“He wasn’t family. That was Cotton Galimore, head of security for Charlotte Motor Speedway.”

That surprised me. “What’s Galimore’s interest?”

“Damage control.”

“I’m sure you’ll explain that.”

“Think about it. Raines tells his wife he’ll be at events connected with Race Week. He goes missing. A body turns up spitting distance from where two hundred thousand fans will be parking their butts.”

“NASCAR wants to avoid distractions. Especially negative distractions.”

“NASCAR. The Speedway. The Chamber of Commerce. I can’t name the prime mover. But if there’s a chance Raines went to the Speedway and ended up dead, the powers that be want to spin the situation in the best light possible. Galimore was ordered to get the lowdown.”

Birdie got up, arched his back, and began nudging my chin with his head.

“I’ve got to go,” I said.

“One other thing.” I heard paper rustle. “A guy named Wayne Gamble has left four messages for you.”

“Saying what?”

“‘I need to talk to Dr. Brennan.’ Who is he?”

“A member of Sandy Stupak’s pit crew.” I told Larabee about Cindi Gamble and Cale Lovette.

I waited out a pause. Then,

“You think the age is too far off for our John Doe to be Lovette?”

“Probably. But I can’t exclude him.”

“Give Gamble a ring,” Larabee said. “I’m going to need a cold hose for Mrs. Flowers if she keeps taking his calls.”

Larabee read off a number. I wrote it down.

“Phone if you need me.” My tone set a new standard for insincere.

“I’ll do some cutting, see what the John Doe’s got going inside.”

After disconnecting, I threw on jeans and a tee and headed downstairs. Birdie padded behind.

While Mr. Coffee did his thing and Birdie crunched little brown pellets, I retrieved the paper from the back stoop. Even the Observer had gone Race Week–crazy. The front page featured photos of Richard Petty, Junior Johnson, and Dale Earnhardt. Hall of Fame candidates or some such. Full color. Above the fold.

Point of information. My hometown is Mecca for NASCAR fans.

Why Charlotte, you ask?

During Prohibition, moonshiners in the Appalachian Mountains of North Carolina used innocent-looking sedans to distribute illegal hooch produced in their stills. To outrun the cops, they modified their vehicles for greater speed and better handling. Many got a rush driving breakneck down twisty mountain roads.

So they started racing each other for fun.

Though the repeal of Prohibition eliminated the need for illicit booze, it seems Southerners had developed a taste for “shine.” Drivers who continued “runnin’” now needed to evade revenuers trying to tax their operations.

More tinkering.

More speed.

More competition.

By the 1940s, tracks had sprung up all over Dixie. In places like Wilkes County, North Carolina, stock car racing became the hottest entertainment in town.

But things were messy back then. Schedules weren’t organized, so fans never knew where their favorite drivers would be. Neither cars nor tracks were subject to safety rules. And some promoters were less than honest.

Bill France, Sr., a driver and race promoter himself, thought this was a lousy way to run a sport. In 1948 he founded NASCAR, the National Association for Stock Car Auto Racing.

France’s idea was simple. NASCAR would establish racing series, sort of like baseball leagues or football conferences. In each series, a group of drivers would compete in a set number of events and follow a common set of rules. At the end of each season, using a uniform scoring system, one champion would be crowned.

Out of chaos came order.

Today NASCAR sanctions the Sprint Cup, the Nationwide Series, and the Camping World Truck Series. There are also some touring competitions, but I’ve no idea their names.

In 1948 the first NASCAR race took place in Daytona Beach, Florida, using the beach for one straightaway and a narrow blacktop highway for the other. Fourteen thousand fans showed up.

NASCAR’s top races were originally known as the Strictly Stock Car Series; then for twenty years as the Grand National Series; then for thirty-plus years as the Winston Cup Series. It was the NEXTEL Cup Series from 2004 to 2007 and has been the Sprint Cup Series ever since. In 2007 nearly 250 million viewers tuned their TVs to watch Sprint Cup events. Those numbers place NASCAR second only to the NFL in popularity.

A lot of the players set up shop in Charlotte.

In May 2010 the NASCAR Hall of Fame opened its doors just a few miles from where I was sitting. The project cost the Queen City two hundred million dollars and hosted ten thousand visitors its first week of life.

All because Americans love their cars and their booze.

I know the names of some drivers. Jimmie Johnson, Jeff Gordon. And some former drivers. Richard Petty, Junior Johnson. Hell, many of them live in and around my zip code. Otherwise, that’s the extent of my NASCAR knowledge.

Normally I’d have skipped the Race Week hype in favor of NBA playoff coverage. Because of the landfill John Doe, I flipped to the racing section.

That day the Charlotte Motor Speedway was hosting a barbecue. That night, in addition to the All-Star Race, events would take place, the nature of which was a mystery to me.

I skimmed the paper’s front and local sections. There was no mention of Raines or the landfill John Doe.

I ate some cornflakes. Gave Birdie the milk leavings. Took my bowl and cup to the sink, rinsed, and placed them in the dishwasher. Wiped the table. Watered the small cactuses that live on my windowsill.

The clock said 10:08.

Out of excuses for further delay, I phoned Summer.

“Hello. I’m Summer’s answering machine. Please tell me your name. I’m sure Summer would love to call you back.”

Eyeballs rolling, I disconnected and dialed the number Larabee had provided.

Wayne Gamble picked up on the first ring.

“This is Dr. Brenn—”

“Any news?” In the background I could hear the roar of engines and the tinny sound of electronically enhanced announcements.

“Dr. Larabee will perform an autopsy this morning. But I can tell you that the victim from the landfill is male.”

“I’m being followed.” Gamble spoke in a hushed, clipped way.

“Sorry?” Surely I’d heard incorrectly.

“Hang on.”

I waited. When Gamble spoke again, the background noise was muted.

“I’m being followed. And I’m pretty sure my back door was jimmied last night.”

“Mr. Gamble, I realize you’re anxious—”

“It happened then, too. To my parents, I mean. I used to see guys hanging around outside our house. Odd cars parked on our street or following us when we drove.”

“This occurred when your sister disappeared?”

“Yes.”

“Did your parents tell the police?’

“My parents contacted the Kannapolis PD and the Cabarrus County Sheriff. And the FBI. Maybe the Charlotte PD. The local cops had asked Charlotte for help. No one took them seriously. Everyone wrote it off as paranoia.”

“Why the FBI?”

“The feds took part in the investigation.”

“Because?”

“It was the nineties. Lovette was hanging with right-wing wackos.”

It took me a moment to grasp Gamble’s meaning.

In 1995 Timothy McVeigh blew up the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City. In 1996, during the summer Olympics, a bomb exploded in Centennial Olympic Park in Atlanta. In 1997 the target was an abortion clinic in Sandy Springs, Georgia. That same year bombs were planted at the Otherside Lounge, a lesbian bar in Atlanta. A year later it was an abortion clinic in Birmingham, Alabama.

In 1998, when Gamble and Lovette disappeared, the FBI was focused full-bore on domestic terrorism. If Lovette was known to associate with anti-government extremists, I wasn’t surprised the bureau was keeping an eye out.

“Regretfully, I see no link between your sister and the victim found in the landfill. As I stated, my preliminary findings suggest that the individual is male and that he was older than twenty-four.”

“Then why is some jackass tailing me?” Very angry.

“Calm down, Mr. Gamble.”

“I’m sorry. I feel like crap, probably some kind of flu. Really bad timing.”

“If you’d like to reopen the investigation into your sister’s disappearance, you could try contacting the Charlotte-Mecklenburg PD Cold Case Unit.”

“Will they admit to the cover-up back in ’ninety-eight?”

“What do you mean?”

“The cops formed a task force, made a public show of looking, then shoved the whole thing under the rug.”

“Mr. Gamble, I’m a forensic anthropologist. I’m not sure how I can help you.”

“Yeah. That’s what I expected.” Coating his anger with disdain. “Cindi wasn’t a congressional intern or some bigwig’s kid. No one gave a rat’s ass then, no one cares now.”

My first reaction was resentment. I started to respond.

Then I thought of Katy, just a few years older than Cindi. I knew the agony I’d feel if my daughter went missing.

How much time could a little poking around take?

“I can’t promise anything, Mr. Gamble. But I’ll ask a few questions.” I reached for pen and paper. “Who was lead on the investigation into your sister’s disappearance?”

The name shocked me.

COTTON GALIMORE. THE MAN WHO’D VISITED LARABEE. THE head of security for Charlotte Motor Speedway.

“Anyone else?”

“A detective named Rinaldo, or something like that.”

“Rinaldi?”

“That’s it. You know him?”

“I do.” After so much time, cold fingers still grabbed and twisted my gut.

Eddie Rinaldi spent most of his career with the Charlotte-Mecklenburg PD Felony Investigative Bureau/Homicide Unit. The murder table. We’d worked many cases together. Two years back, I’d watched Rinaldi gunned down by a manic-depressive who’d skipped his meds.

Gamble’s words brought me back. “Rinaldi seemed like a stand-up guy. You’ll talk to him?”

“I’ll see what I can find out,” I promised.

Gamble thanked me, and we disconnected.

I sat staring at the page on which I’d written nothing.

For decades Rinaldi had partnered with a detective named Erskine Slidell. Skinny. I wondered why he was working with Galimore in the fall of ’ninety-eight.

Call Slidell? Galimore?

Though a good cop, Skinny Slidell tends to grate on my nerves. But something in my brain was cautioning against Galimore.

I checked my address book, then dialed.

“Slidell.”

“It’s Temperance Brennan.”

“How’s it hangin’, Doc?” Slidell views himself as Charlotte’s answer to Dirty Harry. Hollywood cop lingo is part of the shtick. “Found us a rotter?”

“Not this time. I wonder if I could pick your brain for a minute.” Generous. A second was plenty to search Skinny’s entire neocortex.

“Your dime, your time.” Spitty. Slidell was chewing on something.

“I’m interested in a couple of MPs dating back to ’ninety-eight. Eddie worked the case.”

There was a long moment with neither reply nor sounds of mastication. I knew Slidell’s insides were clenching, as mine had.

“You there?” I asked.

“Fall of ’ninety-eight I was TDY on a training course up in Quantico.”

“Did Eddie partner with someone while you were away?”

“A horse’s ass name of Cotton Galimore. What the hell kinda name is Cotton?”

Typical Skinny. He thinks it, he says it.

“Galimore is now in charge of security for Charlotte Motor Speedway,” I said.

Slidell made a noise I couldn’t interpret.

“Why did he leave the force?” I asked.

“Got too close to a buddy name of Jimmy Beam.”

“Galimore drinks?”

“Booze is what finally got him booted.”

“I gather you don’t like him.”

“Ask me? You can cut off his head and shit in his—”

“Did Eddie ever mention Cindi Gamble or Cale Lovette?”

“Give me a hint, Doc.”

“Gamble was a high school kid, Lovette was her boyfriend. Both went missing in October of ’ninety-eight. Eddie worked the case. The FBI was also involved.”

“Why the feds?”

“Lovette had ties to right-wingers. Possible domestic terrorism issues.”

I waited out another pause. This one with a lot of slurping and popping.

“Kinda rings a bell. If you want, I can pull the file. Or check Eddie’s notes.”

Cops hang nicknames on each other, most based on physical or personality traits. Skinny, for example, hadn’t seen a forty-inch waistline in at least twenty years. Other than excessive height, a taste for classical music, and a penchant for pricey clothes, Rinaldi had exhibited no quirks at which to poke fun. Eddie had remained Eddie throughout his career.

Rinaldi’s one singular peculiarity was his habit of recording the minutiae of every investigation in which he took part. His notebooks were legendary.

“That would be great,” I said.

Slidell disconnected without a good-bye or any query concerning the nature of my interest in a case now over a dozen years cold. I appreciated the latter.

I played with Birdie. Made the bed. Took out the trash. Loaded laundry. Read the e-mails that I’d ignored. Checked a freckle on my shoulder for signs of melanoma.

Then, with a level of enthusiasm I reserve for flossing and waxing, I again phoned Summer.

To my dismay, she answered.

“Hi. This is Tempe.” I could hear voices in the background. Regis and Kelly? “Pete’s ex. Well, any day now.”

“I know who y’all are.” Summer had a drawl you could pour on pancakes.

“How’s it going?”

“Good.”

“Are you still working at Happy Paws?” Desperate for subject matter.

“Why wouldn’t I be?” Defensive. “I’m a fully trained veterinary assistant.”

“It must be exhausting having a full-time job while trying to plan a big wedding.”

“Not everyone can be superwoman.”

“How right you are.” Cheerful as hell. “It’s going well?”

“Mostly.”

“Have you hired a planner?” I’d heard that she and Pete were inviting only a few thousand people.

I heard a quavery intake of breath.

“Is something wrong?”

“Petey’s being a grumpy-pants about every little thing.”

“I wouldn’t worry. Pete’s never been big on ceremony.”

“Until that changes, Mr. Grumpy-Pants won’t be foxtrotting at my prom. If you take my meaning.”

So the groom-to-be had lost playground privileges.

“Pete thought it might be good if we got to know each other,” I said.

Nothing but Regis and Kelly.

“If there’s any way I can help…” I let the offer hang, expecting a frosty rebuff.

“Could you talk to him?”

“About?”

“Showing proper interest.” Little-girl petulant. “When I ask what kind of flowers he wants, he says whatever. Cream or white linens on the tables? Whatever. Tinted or clear glass in the hurricane lamps? Whatever. He acts like he doesn’t care.”

Who would? I thought.

“I’m sure he trusts your judgment,” I said.

“Pretty please?”

I pictured Summer with her overdeveloped breasts and underdeveloped brain. Marveled again at the folly of middle-aged men.

“OK,” I said. “I’ll talk to him.”

The line beeped. I checked the screen. Slidell.

“I’m sorry, Summer. I have to take an incoming call.”

I couldn’t disconnect fast enough.

“I pulled Eddie’s book for the fall of ’ninety-eight. Your MPs are in there. Cindi Gamble, seventeen, Cale Lovette, twenty-four. Last seen at the Charlotte Motor Speedway on October fourteenth. They were attending some big-ass race.”

“The Speedway is located in Cabarrus County,” I said. “Why did Eddie and Galimore catch the case?”

“Apparently the girl’s parents called it in here. Then Kannapolis asked the Charlotte PD to stay in. You want to hear this or what?”

As frequently happened when dealing with Slidell, my upper and lower molars started reaching for each other.

“Gamble and Lovette were an item. He worked at the track. She was a senior at A. L. Brown High in Kannapolis.”

Slidell paused. I could tell he was skimming, which meant this might take the rest of the morning.

“The girl’s parents are listed as Georgia and James Gamble. Brother Wayne. According to the mother, Cindi left home around ten that morning to go to the track.” Pause. “Good student. No problems with drugs or alcohol. That checked out solid.

“The boy’s mother is listed as Katherine Lovette. Father’s Craig Bogan. Kid left home at his normal time, seven a.m. Records showed he clocked in for the job, didn’t clock out.

“A maintenance worker name of Grady Winge saw the MPs around six that night. Lovette was talking to a male subject unknown to Winge. Gamble and Lovette drove off with the subject in a ’sixty-five Petty-blue Mustang with a lime-green decal on the windshield on the passenger side. What the hell’s Petty blue?”

“Was the car traced?” I asked.

“Winge didn’t get a plate.”

Pause. I could almost hear Skinny reading with his finger.

“Lovette hung with a group of right-wing nutballs called themselves the Patriot Posse. Militia types. The feds had him and his buddies under surveillance. I’m guessing they were hoping for a lead to Eric Rudolph.”

Slidell referred to a suspect in the bombings at Centennial Olympic Park, the lesbian bar, and both abortion clinics. In May ’ninety-eight Rudolph made the FBI’s Ten Most Wanted list and became the subject of a million-dollar reward. For five years, while federal and amateur teams searched, Rudolph lived as a fugitive in the Appalachian wilderness, evading capture with the assistance of white-supremacist, anti-government sympathizers, only to be caught almost accidentally by a local town cop. Rudolph was scavenging a supermarket Dumpster for food.

“—Special Agents Dana Reed and Marcus Perenelli.”

I jotted down the names.

“What the hell makes them special? Think I’ll start calling myself Special Detective Slidell.”

I heard a sharp inhalation followed by thwp. I knew a wad of Juicy Fruit was sailing into a flowerpot on Slidell’s desk.

“Wayne Gamble said a task force investigated the disappearances.”

“Yeah. Made up of the two specials, Rinaldi, and Galimore. They interviewed the usual wits, family, known associates, yadda yadda. Searched the usual places. Ran the usual loops. Six weeks out, they handed in a report saying Gamble and Lovette most likely took off.”

“Why?”

“Maybe to get married. The girl was underage.”

“Took off where?”

“Theory was the Patriot Posse piped them in to the militia underground.”

“Wayne Gamble didn’t buy that theory. Still doesn’t.”

“Ditto Gamble’s parents.” Slidell paused. “Gamble had a teacher, Ethel Bradford. Bradford swore there was no way the kid would leave on her own.”

I thought about that. “I searched but found no news coverage of the incident. That strikes me as odd, given that a seventeen-year-old girl had vanished.”

“Eddie says in here there was a lot of pressure to keep things under wraps.”

“Out of the papers.”

“Yeah. He also hints there was a real squeeze to roll with the party line.”

“Squeeze from whom?”

“He don’t say.”

“Did he disagree with the task force’s finding?”

A full minute passed as Skinny picked through Rinaldi’s notes.

“Not straight out. But I can tell from his wording he thought something didn’t smell right.”

“What does he say?”

Slidell has an annoying habit of sidestepping questions.

“I’ve gotta do some canvassing on a domestic. Soon as I’m back, I’ll pull the original case file.”

“How’s Detective Madrid?” I asked.

Following Rinaldi’s death, Slidell had been assigned a new partner. Feeling he needed a tune-up in the area of cultural diversity, the department had paired him with a woman named Theresa Madrid. Boisterous, bodacious, and weighing almost as much as Skinny, Madrid referred to herself as a double-L: Latina lesbian.

Madrid turned out to be a crackerjack detective. Despite Skinny’s initial horror, the two got along well.

“Get this. The broad’s on frickin’ maternity leave. Can you believe it? She and her partner adopted a kid.”

“You’re working solo?”

“Ain’t it grand.”

As before, Slidell disconnected without an adieu.

The phone was still pressed to my ear when it rang again.

“Just finished the autopsy on your John Doe.” Larabee’s voice sounded odd. “Damned if it makes sense to me.”

“YOU WANT DETAILS OR THE SHORT VERSION?”

“Short.”

“The guy had lesions in his airways and pulmonary edema. The organs were pretty far gone, but I saw hints of multifocal ulceration and hemorrhage in the gastric and small-intestinal mucosa.”

“Meaning he died of natural causes?”

“Meaning his lungs were full of fluid and something was screwing with his vascular system. But it’s not that simple. He’d also taken a blow to the left side of the head, resulting in hemorrhage into the temporal lobe.”

“The man either fell or was struck.”

“If the tox screen comes back negative, MOD goes down as undetermined.” Larabee used the acronym for one of the five categories of manner of death: natural, homicide, suicide, accidental, or undetermined.

“So how’d the guy end up in a barrel of asphalt?”

“In my report I’ll note suspicious circumstances.”

“What about ID?”

“Nothing. Even though you think it’s unlikely the PMI works, I’m following up on Raines. According to the wife, his last dental checkup was in 2007. The dentist died in 2009, and no one knows what happened to his files.”

“Any hit on the prints?”

“No. The landfill guy’s not in any system.”

I told Larabee about my conversations with Wayne Gamble and Skinny Slidell. “I suppose the John Doe could be Cale Lovette.” I didn’t really believe it.

“Your age estimate looks pretty solid. At least dentally, the landfill guy looks older than twenty-four. How about you get Lovette’s profile, maybe a photo, then check the John Doe’s skeletal markers, try to narrow the range?”

“Today?”

“Galimore phoned twice this morning. The folks at the Speedway are pissing their shorts for resolution on this.”

My eyes met Birdie’s. The cat was giving me an accusatory look. I think.

“Is Joe working this afternoon?”

“Yes.”

“I’ll be there shortly.” Resisting the impulse to sigh theatrically.

“You’re a trouper.”

I checked my list of incoming calls, scrolled down, hit dial. I’d been on the phone so long, the handset was now the same temperature as my liver.

Wayne Gamble answered after two rings. Background noise told me he was still at the track.

“Can you describe Cale Lovette?” I asked.

“Dirtbag.”

“His physical appearance.”

“Brown hair, brown eyes, wiry, maybe a hundred and sixty pounds.”

“How tall?”

“Five-six or -seven. Why? What’s happened?”

“Nothing. I just need descriptors.”

“I saw the little snake who’s been tailing me. First at the hauler, then by Sandy’s trailer. Whenever I spot him, he cuts into the crowd.”

“Mr. Gamble, I—”

“Next time I’ll twist his balls until he tells me what the hell’s going on.”

“Thank you for the information.”

Driving to the MCME, I pondered Larabee’s closing “attagirl.” Wondered. Was “trouper” a promotion or demotion from “champ”?

When I arrived, Larabee had left a photocopied picture on my desk. The name Ted Raines was written at the bottom.

Raines wasn’t exactly a looker. His weak chin and prominent nose made me think of a bottlenose dolphin.

Hawkins had already rolled the John Doe to the stinky room and plugged in the Stryker saw. With his help, I removed the collarbones and the pubic symphyses, the little projections that meet at the midline on the belly side of the pelvis.

While Joe stripped flesh from the harvested bones, I retracted the scalp to observe the cranial surface.

The adult skull is composed of twenty-two bones separated by twenty-four sutures that appear as squiggly lines. Throughout adulthood, these gaps fill in and disappear. Though progress varies from person to person, the state of suture closure can provide a very general sense of age.

The John Doe’s squiggles suggested he was a middle-aged adult.

The pubic symphyseal faces also undergo change throughout adulthood. Those of the John Doe were smooth and had raised edges rimming their perimeters, suggesting an age range centering on thirty-five.

The epiphysis, or little cap at the breastbone end of each clavicle, fuses to the shaft somewhere between the ages of eighteen and thirty. Both the John Doe’s caps were solidly attached.

Bottom line. My first estimate was dead-on. In all probability, the John Doe was in his fourth decade when he died.

A bit old for Cale Lovette, but not impossible.

“So,” I said, stripping off and tossing my gloves. “It’s probably not Lovette.”

“Who’s Lovette?”

Hawkins was at the sink, untying his apron. I told him about the MPs from 1998.

“Don’t remember hearing talk of ’em.” His tone was brusque.

“Apparently no one does. Anyway, Galimore will be happy.”

Hawkins winged his wadded apron toward the biohazard receptacle. It bounced off the edge and landed on the floor. He made no move to retrieve it.

“You have issues with Galimore?” I asked.

“Damn right I have issues with Galimore.”

“You want to tell me?”

“The man can’t be trusted.” Hawkins’s mouth was crimped as though he’d tasted something bitter.

“Are you referring to his alcohol problem?”

“Suppose that’s as good a starting place as any.”

Hawkins crossed to the pail, pounded the pedal with his heel, snatched up and tossed the apron inside. Letting the lid slam, he strode from the room.

After changing to street clothes, I went in search of my boss. He was not at his desk, in the kitchen, out front, or in the large autopsy room.

I returned to my office, jotted Larabee a note about my refined age estimate, then headed out.

The afternoon was featuring the season’s current default weather. The sky was pewter, the thunderheads dark and fat as overripe plums.

On the way home, I thought about the man entombed in asphalt. Had someone filed a missing person report? When? In Charlotte or elsewhere? Had a girlfriend or wife or brother gone to a station, filled out forms, then waited for a call that never came?

I felt in my gut that the man had spent years in the drum. Wondered. Was someone still waiting? Or had all those who’d known him long since forgotten and moved on with their lives?

The first drop hit my windshield as I pulled in at the Annex. I was locking the car when I noticed the doors open on a Ford Crown Vic parked by the coach house ten yards away.

Two men got out. Each wore a dark suit, blue tie, and eye-blistering white shirt. I watched the pair walk toward me.

“Dr. Brennan?”

“Who’s asking?”

“I’m Special Agent Carl Williams.” Williams flashed a badge. He was small and compact, with mahogany skin and nostrils that flared spectacularly.

I looked at Williams’s badge, then at his companion.

“With me is Special Agent Percy Randall.”

Randall was tall and pale, with wide-set gray eyes and a quarter-inch buzz. He nodded slightly.

Keys in hand, I waited.

“I suppose you know why we’re here.” While Williams took the lead, Randall observed me closely.

“I have no idea.” I didn’t.

“Two days ago you recovered a body from the Morehead Road landfill.”

I neither confirmed nor denied the statement.

“You’ve been asking about Cindi Gamble and Cale Lovette.”

Didn’t expect that. Had Wayne Gamble contacted the FBI? Slidell? Galimore? How would Galimore know what names I’d queried?

“What is it you want?” I asked.

“We can’t help wondering if the man from the dump is Cale Lovette.”

“I’m not at liberty to discuss medical examiner files. You’ll have to speak to Dr. Larabee.”

“We’re trying to contact him. In the meantime, we hoped you could save us some shoe leather.” Williams did something with his mouth that might have been a smile.

“Sorry,” I said.

A drop hit my forehead. Backhanding the moisture, I glanced skyward.

“I wasn’t involved in the Gamble-Lovette inquiry back in ’ninety-eight.” Williams ignored my not so subtle hint. “Those special agents are now gone from North Carolina. But I can assure you, the task force carried out a thorough and comprehensive investigation.”

“I’ve no reason to doubt that, but I understand they didn’t locate either live persons or bodies.”

“Wayne Gamble was a child at the time. He didn’t fully understand the effort that went into searching for his sister. The task force concluded she had gone underground.”

“Is there something specific you wish to discuss?” A steady rain was falling now.

“Task force members canvassed family, friends, teachers, students, coworkers—anyone who’d had even the most casual contact with Gamble or Lovette.”

“Grady Winge?” Winge was the last to see Cindi and Cale alive. His name came out before I even thought about it.

Williams’s lower lids pinched up ever so slightly. “Of course. Everyone searched until the trail went dead. The consensus was that Gamble and Lovette had left the area of their own volition.”

“The parents didn’t think so. Nor did Ethel Bradford.” I tossed out the teacher’s name, implying I knew more about the investigation than I actually did. Which was virtually nothing.

“Mr. Gamble is still upset.” Williams’s tone remained absolutely neutral. “And that is understandable. He lost his sister. The bureau has no problem with his wish to reopen the case.”

If Williams wanted a response, I disappointed him.

“We prefer, of course, that he act with discretion.”

“I can’t stop him from talking to the press, if that’s what you mean.”

“Of course not. But we hope he might be discouraged from making unjustified allegations against the FBI.”

Rain was dropping in earnest. Williams kept talking.

“If the case is reopened, the bureau will cooperate fully. But I’ll be straight with you, Dr. Brennan. We don’t know if Cindi Gamble and Cale Lovette are alive or dead.”

“Thank you for your honesty.”

“We know it will be reciprocated.” Again, Williams might have smiled.

“Should the case be reopened, would the medical examiner and the CMPD have access to information gathered by the bureau back in ’ninety-eight?” I asked.

Williams and Randall exchanged glances.

“I don’t want to dishearten you, Dr. Brennan. But I can’t guarantee that the FBI will turn over all its files and internal notes to anyone. Please trust me when I say we have no idea what happened to Gamble and Lovette. They simply vanished.”

I looked Williams straight in the eye. “You’ve spoken with members of that task force. What do you think happened to them?”

“I believe they left to join fellow extremists out West.”

“Why?”

Williams hesitated. Debating whether to pony up some of that reciprocal honesty?

“The sieges at Ruby Ridge in ’ninety-two and Waco in ’ninety-three shot militia outrage sky-high. When Gamble and Lovette disappeared, the airways were full of anti-government chatter.”

Williams referred to incidents in which U.S. agents stormed compounds occupied by fringe groups. In each case, people were killed, and those contesting the legitimacy of government were irate.

“From everything I’ve learned, Lovette was a virulent young man, and Gamble was very young, in love with him, and under his thumb,” Williams said.

“So the two just slipped underground.”

“That’s the only theory that makes sense.”

“Is that really so easy to do?”

“Rural Michigan, Montana, Idaho,” Williams said. “These crackpots go so far off the grid, no one can find them.”

One thing bothered me.

“The investigation lasted only six weeks,” I said.

“Which is why Gamble thinks it was a sham. But his sister and Lovette vanished so completely from the outset, it was thought they’d probably gone underground. When the trail went cold, the FBI decided to disband the task force and rely on intel.”

I remembered Slidell’s comment. “You hoped Lovette might lead you to a bigger catch. Like Eric Rudolph.”

“We considered that.”

I hiked my purse back onto my shoulder. Which was soaked.

“Please go in out of the rain, Dr. Brennan.” Williams flicked the maybe-smile. “And thank you for talking with us. Believe it or not, the bureau is as anxious to find out what happened as you are.”

With that, Williams and Randall hurried to their car and drove off.

The conversation replayed in my mind as I changed clothes and towel-dried my hair. Had the visit been an attempt to dissuade me from helping Wayne Gamble?

I’d just slipped on sandals when the phone rang.

As usual, Slidell skipped the pleasantries.

What he said stunned me.

And tripped an anger switch in my brain.

“GONE?”

“Like a long dog.”

“Gone where?”

“Snatched by the fart barf and itch.” Slidell’s voice was tight with fury.

“The FBI seized the entire Gamble-Lovette file?”

“Right down to the paper clips.”

“At the conclusion of the inquiry?”

“No. Right now. Yesterday. Twelve years after the investigation, they came and grabbed the file.”

“Who authorized that?”

“All I could pry loose was that word came from high up.”

“What about Eddie’s notes?”

“No friggin’ way. They weren’t part of the jacket.” I heard a palm smack something solid. “Got ’em right here.”

A body surfaced at the landfill on Thursday. Wayne Gamble came to see me on Friday. Shortly thereafter, a twelve-year-old file was suddenly confiscated. What the hell?

Silence hummed across the line as Slidell and I considered the implications. He broke it.

“Something stinks.”

“Yes.”

“No one fucks with Erskine Slidell.” I’d seen Skinny angry. Often. But rarely with so much emotion.

“What are you going to do?” I asked.

“Call you right back.”

Dead air.

Fifteen minutes later the phone rang again.

“You free?” Slidell asked.

“I could be.”

“Pick you up in ten.”

“Where are we going?”

“Kannapolis.”

Ethel Bradford taught junior and senior chemistry at A. L. Brown High School from 1987 until her retirement in 2004. She still lived in the house she’d purchased upon landing that job.

Save for the blasting AC and angry air whistling in and out of Slidell’s nose, the drive from Charlotte to Kannapolis passed in silence. Skinny alternated between drumming agitated fingers and gripping the wheel so tightly I thought he might crush it.

Though the temperature inside the Taurus was subarctic, the space was ripe with odors. Old Whoppers and fries. Cold coffee. The bamboo mat on which Skinny parked his ample backside.

Slidell himself. The man reeked of cigarette smoke, drugstore cologne, and garments long overdue for hamper or dry cleaner.

I was bordering on queasiness and hypothermia when Slidell pulled to the curb in front of a small brick bungalow with green shutters and trim. Hydrangeas bordered the foundation. Potted geraniums lined brick steps leading to the front porch.

“Is she expecting us?” I asked.

“Eeyuh.”

Pushing off the seat back with an elbow, Slidell hauled himself from behind the wheel. I followed him up the walk.

The inner door swung open before Slidell’s thumb hit the bell.

I’d formed a mental image, perhaps based on my own high school chemistry teacher. Ethel Bradford was younger than I expected, probably just a hair north of sixty-five, slim, with boy-cut auburn hair. Her pale blue eyes looked enormous behind thick round glasses.

Slidell made introductions and held his badge to the screen. Without studying it, Bradford stepped back and opened the outer door. I noted that she hadn’t dressed up for our visit. She wore khaki shorts, a checked cotton blouse, and was barefoot.

Bradford led us down a hall lined with framed travel photos, then through an arched opening to the right. The living room had linen drapes and a tan Oushak rug overlying a gleaming oak floor. The brick fireplace was painted white to match the woodwork and flanking bookcases.

“Please.” Bradford gestured at a leather sofa.

Slidell took one end. I took the other. Bradford sat in an armchair on the far side of a steamer trunk doing duty as a coffee table.

Before Slidell could begin, Bradford started asking questions.

“Have you found Cindi?”

“No, ma’am.”

“Is she dead?”

“We don’t know that.”

“Has new information emerged?”

“No, ma’am. We’d just like to ask a few questions.”

“Just seems odd, that’s all. After so much time.” Bradford twisted sideways and tucked her bare feet up under her bum.

“Yes, ma’am. So you do remember Cindi Gamble?”

“Of course I do. She was an excellent student. There were far too few of those. I also knew her through STEM.”

“STEM?” Slidell pulled a spiral pad from his pocket, flipped pages with a spitted thumb, and clicked a pen to readiness.

“The Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math Club. Cindi was a member. I was faculty adviser.”

“You remember when she went missing?”

Slidell got a withering look from behind the Harry Potter lenses.

“I assume you were questioned at the time,” he said.

“Briefly. The police lost interest because I couldn’t really tell them much.” Using one finger, Bradford shot her glasses up the bridge of her nose. They immediately dropped back into the groove in which they’d been resting.

“What did you tell them?”

“Cindi stopped coming to school.”

“That’s it?”

“That’s all I knew.”

“They talk to other teachers?”

“I suppose so. I’m really not sure.”

While Slidell asked questions, I observed Bradford. I noted that her right hand grasped one ankle very tightly. Though trying to hide it, the woman was nervous.

“What about Lovette?” Slidell asked.

“What about him?”

“Did you know him?”

“I had no personal contact with Cale Lovette. He was not a student at A. L. Brown. Isn’t this all on record somewhere? I’ve already answered these very same questions.”

“Did you know that Cindi was dating Lovette?”

“Yes.”

“She ever talk about him?”

“Not to me.”

“Were you aware of Lovette’s involvement with a group called the Patriot Posse?”

“I’d heard rumors.” Bradford’s gaze flicked toward the doorway, as though a noise or movement had startled her.

“Were the kids into that sort of thing?”

“What sort of thing?”

Slidell stared at Bradford, unmoving. I could sense his irritation.

“Cindi ever say anything about hating Negroes or Jews? Homosexuals?” Slidell pronounced it “homo-sectials.”

“That would have been out of character.”

“Abortionists? The federal government?”

“I don’t think so.”

“But you don’t know.” Slidell was losing patience.

“The sad truth is, teachers know very little about their students. About their private lives, I mean. Unless a student chooses to confide.”

“Which Cindi did not.”

Bradford stiffened at Slidell’s accusatory tone. I met her eyes. Rolled mine, implying that I also found his attitude boorish.

Slidell tapped his pen on his pad, eyes locked on Bradford. She didn’t blink.

The standoff was interrupted by Slidell’s cell phone. Yanking it from his belt, he checked the number.

“Gotta take this.” Slidell shoved to his feet and lumbered from the room.

I decided to continue with the good-cop ploy.

“It must have been dreadful losing a student like that.”

Bradford nodded.

“Was there talk on campus?” I asked gently. “Among faculty and students? Speculation about what happened to them?”

“Frankly, there was surprisingly little. Lovette was an outsider. Other than STEM, Cindi wasn’t a joiner. She wasn’t”—Bradford hooked a half quotation mark with the fingers of her free hand—“popular.”

“Kids can be cruel.”

“Viciously cruel.” Bradford was falling for my female-bonding shtick. “Cindi Gamble loved engines and wanted to be a race car driver. For a female, in those days, such an avocation did not make you prom queen, even in Kannapolis.”

“I know it’s hard to remember so far back. But was there any student with whom she was close?”

The free hand rose, palm up, in a gesture of frustration. “As I understood it, she spent all of her time at some track.”

“Do you remember seeing Cindi with anyone in particular at school, maybe in the halls or the cafeteria?”

“There was one girl. Lynn Hobbs. Cindi and Lynn often ate lunch together.”

“Did Lynn give a statement?”

“I’m not sure.”

“Do you know where she lives today?”

Bradford shook her head.

“Would you mind telling me who interviewed you back in ’ninety-eight?” I asked.

“Two police officers.”

“From the Charlotte-Mecklenburg PD?”

“Yes.”

“Do you remember their names?”

“No.”

“Can you describe them?”

“One was tall and thin. Very polite. His accent suggested he wasn’t local. The other was coarser. He looked like a bodybuilder.”

“Detectives Rinaldi and Galimore?”

“That sounds right.”

Leaning forward, I lowered my voice to confide, girlfriend to girlfriend. “Anyone else?”

“What do you mean?”

“Were you questioned by the FBI?”

As before, Bradford’s gaze jumped toward the archway behind me, then dropped. Clearly our presence was making her anxious. She nodded.

“Did you make a formal statement?”

“No.”

“Did the special agent mention the Patriot Posse?”

“I don’t recall details of the conversation.”

“Did the FBI ask you to keep your discussions confidential?” Before Bradford could answer, Slidell reappeared and tipped his head toward the door.

“One last question,” I asked softly.

Bradford raised reluctant eyes to me.

“Do you think Cindi Gamble left on her own?”

“Not for a second,” she said firmly. “I said so then, and I’ll say it now.”

Leaving our cards, Slidell and I headed out.

Back in the Taurus, I told him what I’d learned in his absence.

“Dame wanted us there about as much as a boil on her ass.”

“She seemed uncomfortable.”

“She knows more than she’s saying.”

“What reason could she have for withholding information?”

“The feebs probably fed her some bullshit about domestic terrorism and confidentiality and national security.”

“Now what?” I asked.

“Who was the lunch buddy?”

“Lynn Hobbs.”

“That name was in Eddie’s notes.”

“Think you can find her?”

“Oh, yeah.” Slidell slid knockoff Ray-Bans onto his nose. “I’ll find her.”

SUNDAY, A MIRACLE OCCURRED. NO RAIN.

Sadly, I had no one with whom to share the fine weather. Katy was in the mountains. Ryan was in Ontario. Harry, my sister, was at home in Texas. My best friend, Anne Turnip, was absorbed in a home renovation project. Charlie Hunt was hunkered in at the Mecklenburg County Public Defender’s Office, preparing his closing argument for the trial of a woman accused of shooting her pimp.

How to label Charlie Hunt? My friend? Suitor? Wannabe squeeze? So far, that was as hot as things had gotten. My call, not his.

I celebrated the sunshine by running my long loop through Freedom Park and around all the Queens Roads. And Charlotte has a boatload. There’s even an intersection of queens and queens.

In the afternoon I weeded the garden, then took Birdie onto the lawn for a session with the FURminator, removing several pounds of fur. After the grooming, he made himself scarce.

In the evening I caught up on paperwork, then grilled a steak and ate it listening to Foghat and Devo full blast. Dove Bar for dessert.

I am an island. A rock. Whatever.

Ryan phoned around nine. I sensed from his tone that he preferred to keep the conversation light and away from the subject of Lily. His goal seemed to be educating me on NASCAR in Canada. Realizing his need for diversion, I mostly listened.

“Jacques Villeneuve is an officer of the National Order of Quebec and was inducted into Canada’s Walk of Fame.”

“Quite an honor for an athlete.”

“To date, no other Canadian has won the Indianapolis 500 or the F One Drivers’ title.”

“Impressive—”

“Jacques Villeneuve has had over a dozen career NASCAR starts. Five in the Nationwide Series and three in the Sprint Cup Series.”

“And the others?”

“Probably the Camping World Truck Series. I know he drove in the 2009 Canadian Tire Series. I was in the stands for that one.”

“What team is he with?”

“He was driving the thirty-two Toyota for Braun Racing. Not sure now. I think he’s trying to get back into Formula One, but the FIA World Motor Sport Council decided there won’t be any new teams this year.”

“Is Villeneuve the only Canadian NASCAR driver?”

Tabarnac, no. Mario Gosselin drives in the Camping World Truck Series. Pierre Bourque, D. J. Kennington, though those guys are mostly part-timers. Jean-François Dumoulin and Ron Fellows are road-course ringers.”

“Which means?”

“They drive road courses, not ovals.” Pause. “Anything new on your landfill case?”

I briefed him on developments.

“You planning a return trip to the Speedway?”

“If necessary.”

Ryan hesitated. “If you go, will you be anywhere near the Nationwide garage area?”

When I realized where he was going, I burst out laughing.

“You want Jacques Villeneuve’s autograph, don’t you?”

“The man’s a legend.”

“You’re such a dork.”

“It’s not like I’m suggesting you steal the guy’s jockeys.”

“Lieutenant-détective Andrew Ryan, Villeneuve groupie.”

“Dr. Temperance Brennan, all-around smart-ass.” I could hear Ryan’s blush flame across the line.

“You wear a cap with the number thirty-two and Jacques’s picture stitched on the brim?”

“Forget it. I don’t even know if Villeneuve’s racing in Charlotte.”

Ryan wished me bonne chance, then we disconnected.

I was settling on the sofa to watch Boston Legal reruns with my very dapper cat when the front doorbell bonged.

Birdie and I looked at each other in surprise. No one ever uses that entrance.

Curious, I crossed the living room and put an eye to the peephole.

And actually cringed.

Summer stood on the porch, digging in a purse the size of a mail pouch. Backlit by the carriage light, her hair looked like a nimbus of white cotton candy.

I considered a quick drop and a belly crawl to the stairs.

Instead, I turned the lock.

Summer’s head popped up at the sound of the tumblers. Even in the dimness, I could see she’d been crying.

“Hey,” she said.

“Hey.”

“I know it’s kinda late.”

Kinda.

“Would you like to come in?” I stood back and opened the door wide.

Summer slipped past me, leaving a tsunami of Timeless in her wake. When I turned, she was extending a box of Tic Tacs in my direction.

“Breath mint?”

“No, thanks.”

“I find the taste calmative.”

“Yes,” I agreed. Using a word like “calmative” was quite an undertaking for Summer.

Summer dropped the little dispenser into her purse and fingered the strap nervously. In her pink-sequined bra tank, pink pencil skirt, and murderous high heels, she looked like an ad for Frederick’s of Hollywood.

“The study is more comfortable,” I said.

“OK.”

Summer clicked along behind me, head swiveling from side to side.

“Would you like something to drink?” I gestured at the sofa.

“Merlot, please.”

“I’m sorry. I don’t keep wine in the house.”

“Oh.” Summer’s perfectly plucked brows V’ed down in confusion. “OK. I didn’t really want it.”

“So. What’s up?” Suspecting this conversation was going to be unpleasant, I dropped into the desk chair and assumed a listening attitude.

“I followed your advice.”

“My advice?”

“I did exactly what you told me to do.”

“Summer, I didn’t—”

“I told Pete he had to show more interest in the wedding.” Summer crossed one long tan leg over the other. “Or else.”

“Wait. What? I—”

“I said, ‘Petey, if this snideybutt attitude continues, I don’t think things will work out between us.’ ”

Summer’s double-D cups rose tremulously. Fell.

I waited.

The tearful account poured forth.

As I listened, short phrases winged in my brain.

Run, Pete.

Run fast.

Run far.

Mean. I know. But that’s the response my gray cells offered.

I didn’t let on. Just nodded as I supplied tissues and empathetic sounds.

The longer Summer talked, the more horrified I became. How could she have misinterpreted my comments so badly?

I imagined Pete’s anger at my perceived culpability. What was Harry’s favorite saying?

No good deed goes unpunished.

Yep. Serious castigation was barreling my way.

Finally the whole sad story was told. Ultimatum. Quarrel. Sobbing exit. Slamming door.

When she’d finished, I offered another tissue.

Summer dabbed beneath each lavishly mascaraed eye.

“So.” She drew a wet breath. “What do I do?”

“Summer, I really don’t feel comfortable—”

“You have to help me.” The tears started anew. “My life is ruined.”

“Perhaps I’ve done enough damage already.” I didn’t really believe it, but the conversation was going even worse than I’d anticipated.

“Exactly. That’s why you have to fix it.”

“I don’t think that’s my place,” I said gently.

“You have to talk to Pete. You have to bring him to his senses.” Summer was creeping closer to hysteria with every word. “You have to—”

“OK. I’ll phone him in the morning.”

“Honest to God?”

“Yes.”

“Cross-your-heart promise?”

Merciful God.

“Yes.”

For one awful moment I thought she would hug me. Instead she blew her nose. Which was now the color of my Christmas socks.

But the mascara remained flawless. I wondered about the brand.

I was still wondering when Summer’s head tipped to one side.

“Oh, sweetie. You are booty-pooty-ful.”

I followed her sight line.

Birdie had entered the room. He sat watching us, ears forward, tail curling around one haunch.

Summer wiggled her fingers and spoke in the same saccharine voice. “Oh, you just come here, you little precious thing.”

Right. In addition to thunderstorms, my cat dislikes strangers and the smell of strong perfume.

To my astonishment, Birdie padded over and jumped onto the couch. When Summer stroked his back, he dropped onto his fore-paws and raised his tail high.

Summer pursed up her lips and uttered another string of baby-talk gibberish.

The little traitor actually purred.

“I apologize, Summer. It’s been a long day, and there are things I need—”

“You must think my mama taught me no manners at all.” Pecking Birdie on the head, Summer gathered her purse and rose.

At the door, she swiveled and beamed me a smile. “One day we’ll all laugh about this.”

“Mm.”

“Tempe, I take back every mean thought I ever had about you.” With that, Summer teetered off into the night.

Falling asleep, I wondered: Can one take back thoughts? Take them back from whom? To what end?

Monday morning, Birdie woke me by chewing my hair.

Fair enough. I’d FURminated off half of his undercoat.

After steeling myself with a quadruple espresso, toaster waffle, and wedge of cantaloupe, I phoned Pete.

“Summer came by my place last night.”

“Did she.”

“She was upset.”

“I expect she was.”

“Look, Pete. I did as you asked. She talked, I listened.”

“Seems you did more than just listen.”

“I offered no advice, rendered no opinion.”

“That wasn’t her take.”

I struggled to be tactful. “Summer has her own way of viewing the world.”

“You turned her into a crazoid.”

She had a huge head start. I didn’t say it.

“What did you do to make her so touchy?” Pete asked.

“She’s concerned about your lack of interest in the upcoming nuptials.”

“Who cares about napkin color? Or the flavor of frosting? Or the shape of a cake?”

“Your fiancée.”

“It’s like some monster has taken possession of her mind.”

Not much to take. Again I kept it to myself.

“You shouldn’t have told her I hate weddings,” Pete said.

“I didn’t. I simply said you weren’t big on ceremony.”

Pete had skipped his high school, college, and law school graduations. Our own marriage extravaganza was organized by my mother, Daisy Lee. Right down to the pearls on the napkin holders, which rested on the china, which complemented the linen tablecloths trimmed with alabaster lace. Pete had simply shown up at the church.

“What do you recommend?” Pete asked wearily.

Stun gun?

“Fake it,” I said. “Pick ivory or white. Raspberry or cherry.”

“She always disagrees with my choice.”

“At least you’ve made the effort.”

“I don’t need this shit at my age.”

Hell-o.

“Pete?”

“Yeah.”

“Did she really call you a snideybutt?”

Dial tone.

After the bout with my ex, I needed physical exertion.

Birdie watched as I laced on my Nikes.

“What do you see in that bimbo?” I asked.

No response.

“She has the depth of a powder-room sink.”

The cat offered nothing in his defense.

The weather was still August-hot. Eight-fifteen and already eighty-two degrees.

I opted for the short course and ran the loop up Queens and through the park. By nine-thirty I was back home, showered, and dressed.

Thinking Slidell might call with information on Lynn Hobbs, I worked through e-mail and paid some bills. Then I read an article in the Journal of Forensic Sciences on the use of amino acid race-mization rates in dentition for the estimation of age. Light stuff.

By eleven the phone hadn’t rung.

Needing a change of venue, I opted for the MCME. I’d finish my report on the landfill John Doe, then package the bone plugs. Should DNA analysis be needed, the specimens would be ready to go.

I’d barely hit my office when Tim Larabee burst through the door.

The look on his face told me something was wrong.

“WHERE’S THE JOHN DOE?” LARABEE’S BLOODSTAINED SCRUBS suggested he’d already been cutting.

Not surprising. Mondays can be hectic for coroners and MEs. Especially Mondays coming off hot summer weekends.

“Sorry?”

“MCME 227-11. Barrel boy. When you finished on Saturday, what did you do with him?” There was a sharp edge to Larabee’s voice.

“I told Joe to return the body to the cooler.”

“It’s not there.”

“It has to be.”

“It’s not.”

“Did you ask Joe?”

“He’s off today.”

“Call him.”

“He doesn’t answer.”

Slightly annoyed, I hurried to the cooler and yanked the handle. The door whooshed outward, carrying with it the smell of refrigerated flesh.

Five stainless-steel gurneys sat snugged to the far wall. Four others occupied the sides of the room. Six held body bags.

As I stepped inside, Larabee watched from the hall, sinewy arms folded across his chest. Moving from bag to bag, I checked case numbers.

Larabee was right. MCME 227-11 was not present.

Shivering and goose-bumped, I exited and closed the door.

“Did you look in the freezer?”

“Of course I looked in the freezer. No one’s in there but the oldman Popsicle we’ve had for two years.”

“A corpse can’t just walk away.”

“Indeed.”

“You didn’t sign a release for removal of the body?” I asked. Stupid. But this was making no sense.

Larabee’s scowl was answer enough.

“You did your autopsy Saturday morning. I finished with my skeletal analysis around four Saturday afternoon. The body must have been moved after that.”

Tight nod.

My mind sorted through possibilities.

“It couldn’t be a funeral-home mix-up. They don’t do pickups on Sundays.”

“And everyone else is accounted for.”

“When did you notice the John Doe missing?”

“About an hour ago. I went into the cooler to collect a gunshot case.”

“Was anyone in here over the weekend? Cleaning crew? Maintenance? Repair service?”

Larabee shook his head.

“Joe was on duty?”

“Yes.”

When alone on night shift, Joe sleeps on a cot in the back of the men’s room. Closed door. Bad ears. An army could march through and he wouldn’t hear a thing.

“Is it possible someone broke in?” I asked.

“And stole a corpse?” Larabee sounded beyond skeptical.

“It happens.” Defensive.

“Body snatchers would have needed to disarm the security system.”

“And tinkering is supposed to trigger an alarm.”

Supposed to.” Larabee’s tone affirmed his cynicism about modern technology.

“Let’s check for signs of forced entry.”

We did.

Found none.

“This is insane.” I was at a loss for more ideas.

“There’s something I should tell you.” Larabee and I were standing beside the roll-on scale at the receiving dock.

I looked a question at him.

“Let’s go to my office.” Now the ME sounded nervous.

We entered and Larabee closed the door. He sat behind his desk. I took a chair facing him.

“As I was leaving on Saturday, I got tagged by the FBI.”

I took a wild guess. “Special Agents Williams and Randall?”

Larabee glanced at a paper lying on his blotter. “Yes. They were asking about the John Doe.”

“What did you tell them?”

“I shared my autopsy findings and your bio profile. I said I’d collected samples for tox analysis and warned that a final report would take time.”

“And?” I asked.

“Williams offered to deliver the samples personally. Said he’d try to get them bumped up the queue. I called the Charlotte field office. The two are legit, so it seemed kosher to me. I asked Joe to handle it.” Larabee’s brows dipped sharply. “A report faxed in around ten this morning.”

“You’re kidding.” I was astonished. Normally it takes weeks, even months, to get lab results.

“My mention of pulmonary lesions and edema coupled with gut ulceration and hemorrhage must have triggered something for Williams. He had my specimens driven to the CDC and fast-tracked through immunochromatographic analysis.”

Larabee referred to a type of immunoassay, a chemical test designed to detect organic substances. I wasn’t an expert but knew a little about the process.

Short course.

Antigens are molecules recognized by our immune systems as outsiders. Could be toxins, enzymes, viruses, bacteria. A transplanted lung that looks wrong. Antibodies are proteins that attack and neutralize these foreign invaders.

Antibodies are present normally in our bodies or are produced in response to specific antigens. This is known as an immune reaction.

Immunoassay tests are based on the ability of antibodies to bind to specific antigens. Threat X triggers response Y. Gotcha! In forensics, the technique is used to identify and quantify unknown organic compounds in samples. This antibody reacted, so this substance must be present.

I waited.

“The test indicated the presence of ricin in two of my samples.”

“Ricin?” I couldn’t keep the surprise from my voice.

Ricin is a naturally occurring toxin derived from the beans of the castor-oil plant, Ricinus communis. One of the deadliest poisons known, it can cause death in thirty-six to seventy-two hours after exposure.

In addition to binding specificity, the other key feature of an immunoassay is that the test produces a measurable signal in response to a particular antigen-antibody hookup. In the case of ricin, a green light is given off. That’s the chromatographic part of the long term.

The green light is measured by a spectrophotometer or similar piece of equipment. Basically, the brighter the glow, the more ricin there is in a sample.

Larabee nodded.

“That explains the fast turnaround time,” I said.

In the past few years immunoassay testing has become quick and simple. There are now kits for the detection of ricin, anthrax, plague, tularemia, and many other biotoxins.

“But it doesn’t explain how ricin got into our John Doe,” Larabee said.

“That’s the stuff that killed Georgi Markov.” I referred to a Bulgarian journalist murdered in London in 1978.

“I doubt our John Doe was ass-stabbed with an umbrella.” “Markov was jabbed in the leg,” I said.

Larabee gave me a look.

I thought a moment. If ingested, inhaled, or injected, ricin causes nausea, muscle spasm, severe diarrhea, convulsion, coma, and ultimately, death.

“Ricin poisoning would fit your autopsy finding,” I said.

“And would explain the interest of the feds.” The phone rang. Larabee ignored it. “The military has been studying ricin for years. They’ve tried coating bullets and artillery rounds with it. They’ve tested it in cluster bombs. I did a quick check after this thing came in.”

He flapped a hand at the fax. “Ricin is listed as a schedule-one controlled substance under both the 1972 Biological Weapons Convention and the 1997 Chemical Weapons Convention.”

“But other toxins are much more effective bioweapons. Anthrax, for example. You’d need tons of ricin compared to a kilo of anthrax.” I’d read that somewhere. “And ricin breaks down relatively quickly. Anthrax spores can remain lethal for decades.”

“The average person can’t lay his hands on anthrax. Or botulin. Or tetanus. The castor bean plant is a friggin’ ornamental. Any loon can grow it in his garden.”

I started to comment. Larabee wasn’t finished.

“Close to a million tons of castor beans are processed every year. About five percent of that ends up as waste containing high concentrations of ricin.”

“So how’d our John Doe die of ricin poisoning?” I asked.

“And end up in a barrel of asphalt in a landfill in Concord?”

“And where the hell is he?”

Without a word, Larabee put his desk phone on speaker and jabbed the buttons. Ten beeps, a buzzy ring, then Hawkins’s voice answered.

“Can’t survive without me, eh, Doc?”

“Sorry to bother you on your day off.” Taut.

“No bother.”

“This may sound odd. But we can’t find the body from the landfill.”

There was no response. In the background I could hear the cadence of a televised baseball game.

“You there?”

“I’m here. Just trying to figure the question.”

“MCME 227-11. The man in the asphalt.”

“I know who you mean.”

“Dr. Brennan and I can’t locate him.”

“’Course you can’t. He’s gone.”

“Gone?” Larabee was twisting and untwisting the receiver cord with his free hand.

“A funeral home came and got him.”

“I didn’t sign for release of the body,” Larabee snapped.

Joe answered with silence.

“Sorry. I just want to understand.”

“The FBI agent. I forget his name—”

“Williams.”

“Yeah. Williams. You said give him what he needs. That’s what I did.”

“Meaning?”

“He took your tox samples on Saturday. Called Sunday, said a van was coming, that I should prepare the John Doe for transport. Took all the X-rays, too.”

“The body left the morgue yesterday?”

“The paperwork’s there, Doc.”

Larabee’s eyes met mine. “Thanks, Joe.”

Larabee cradled the receiver.

Together we hurried to Mrs. Flowers’s station.

“Did Joe leave a transfer form yesterday?”

Mrs. Flowers flipped through her in-box, pulled a paper, and handed it to Larabee.

“What the hell’s SD Conveyance?” Larabee spoke as he read.

“Never heard of it,” I said.

“Special Agent Williams signed for the body.”

“Not a funeral home?”

“No.” Larabee thrust the paper my way.

Behind us, Mrs. Flowers had gone very quiet. I knew she was listening.

“This is outrageous. The medical examiner must operate independently. I can’t have government agents waltzing into my morgue and confiscating remains.”

Sudden synapse.

“You said the government is interested in ricin as a potential bioweapon.”

“So?”

“Ted Raines works for the CDC.”

“The guy who went missing last week?”

I nodded.

Catching my implication, Larabee began pacing.

Mrs. Flowers watched, eyes shifting like a spectator’s at a tennis match.

“Sonofabitch.” Larabee’s face had gone crimson.

“Don’t have a heart attack,” I said.

“How do I ID a body without the body? Or the X-rays?”

“Maybe the feds don’t want this body identified.”

We were gnawing on that when my brain cells fired up another offering.

“I cut bone plugs from the John Doe in case we decided to do DNA testing.”

Larabee and I raced to the stinky room.

I checked the counter. The cabinets. The small refrigerator used for storage of specimens.

The large autopsy suite.

My office.

The shelves in the cooler.

The microscopy lab.

The bone plugs were gone.

I’D JUST RETURNED TO MY OFFICE WHEN THE PHONE RANG.

“I asked him to wait, but he wouldn’t listen.” Mrs. Flowers was peeved. “He never does.”

Heavy footsteps alerted me to the source of her irritation.

“It’s all right,” I said.

I was replacing the receiver when Slidell appeared in my doorway. Today’s jacket was tan polyester. The tie was black, the shirt orange.

Without invitation, Slidell entered and dropped into a chair.

“Please come in,” I said.

“What’s eating you?” Two scuffed loafers shot my way. The carroty socks matched the carroty shirt. Nice.

“Mrs. Flowers prefers to announce visitors,” I said.

“She’ll get over it.”

“She sees it as part of her job.”

“I’ve got places to be.”

First the missing body. Now Slidell.

I drew a calming breath.

“Williams and Randall confiscated the John Doe.”

Slidell drew in his feet and leaned forward at the waist. “No shit.”

“No shit.”

“Where’d they take him?”

“That’s unclear. Larabee is phoning the FBI now.”

“Any idea why?”

I told Slidell about the ricin.

“They thinking terrorism?”

I raised both palms. Who knows?

“How ’bout you?”

I debated. Share my conjecture? Why not.

“Ted Raines is employed by the CDC,” I said. “Raines came to Charlotte for Race Week and vanished. Shortly thereafter a body turned up in a landfill smack next to the Speedway. That body is contaminated with a biotoxin.”

Slidell’s eyes narrowed in thought. Then, “How about this? Cale Lovette hung with right-wing loonies. Lovette disappeared in ’ninety-eight, the year anthrax threats started dropping into mailboxes at women’s clinics. The same year Barnett Slepian was murdered.”

“The abortion doctor.”

“Yeah.”

Not bad, Skinny.

“I think the landfill John Doe is too old to be Lovette,” I said.

“You sure?”

“No. Age indicators vary from person to person. Lovette could fall at the extreme upper end of his chronological range.”

For a few moments no one spoke. Finally Slidell placed his forearms on his thighs, leaned on them, and looked up at me from below puffy lids. The black tie dangled between his knees.

“Tracked down Grady Winge.”

It took me a moment to make the connection. “The man who saw Cindi and Cale leave the Speedway the night they vanished.”

“Yeah. Winge hasn’t blazed what you’d call a fiery career path.”

“Meaning?”

“The mope’s still at the same job he had back then. I’m heading to Concord now.”

I opened the drawer and grabbed my purse.

“Let’s go,” I said.

The Charlotte Motor Speedway accommodates a whole lot more than racing. In addition to the 1.5-mile quad oval track, the two-thousand-plus-acre complex contains grandstand seats, food concessions, restroom facilities, and campgrounds for the masses. The affluent enjoy luxury suites, a fifty-two-unit condo complex, and the Speedway Club, an exclusive dining and entertainment facility.

For drivers, there is a twenty-thousand-square-foot Sprint Cup garage area, a 2.25-mile road course, and a .6-mile karting layout in the infield. A quarter-mile oval utilizes part of the front stretch and pit road, and a one-fifth-mile oval sits outside turn three.

The seven-story Smith Tower is home to ticket and corporate offices, and a small industrial park houses motor-sports-related businesses.

The Speedway grounds also contain a natural wildlife habitat. And, of course, the landfill.

Grady Winge tended flowers throughout all but the latter two areas.

Given that it was Race Week, traffic was reasonable, and Slidell and I made it to Concord in forty minutes. A young man met us outside the Smith Tower and offered to take us by golf cart to the infield. His name badge said Harley.

Slidell stated his preference to drive.

Harley explained the impossibility of maneuvering the Taurus through the throngs of people jamming the grounds. Slidell argued. Smiling but firm, Harley restated his willingness to transport us.

I resolved the issue by hopping onto the cart’s backseat, the rearward-orienting position, so Slidell could at least face forward. Snorting in disgust, Skinny deposited his substantial bulk in front. Harley popped the brake, wove through the crowd, then plunged downward into the underground tunnel leading into the infield.

At midpoint, I glanced over my shoulder toward the front seat. Slidell was haloed by sunlight pouring through the opening at the tunnel’s far end. One beefy hand gripped the upright as though bracing for passage through a 20-G centrifuge.

The infield campgrounds were crammed with the tents and motor homes of the devoted. Fans sweated on lawn chairs and atop trailers, many wearing far too little clothing and needing far more sunblock. Others crowded picnic tables outside concession stands, chowing on corn dogs, burgers, fries, and ’cue.

Harley glided to a stop beside a gray and blue building bearing the words MEDIA CENTER. Enormous haulers sat side by side in a fenced area opposite the building’s main entrance.

Alighting, I heard Harley tell Slidell that the haulers belonged to Nationwide drivers. Not interested or not comprehending, Slidell offered no response.

Entering the Media Center was like stepping from a blast oven into a cooler. Harley indicated a man seated at the farthest in a cluster of round plastic tables off to the right. “That’s Grady Winge.”

Winge was enormous, perhaps six two, three hundred pounds, with thin brown hair tied into a pony at the nape of his neck. His khaki shirt was mottled with soil, its underarms darkened by large half-moons.

“Here’s my cell phone number.” Harley handed me a card. “Call when you’re finished.” Flashing a smile, he headed off into the building.

Slidell and I took a moment to observe our target. Winge’s face was tanned and creased from hours in the sun, making it hard to pinpoint age. His cap lay on the table, sweat-stained to the belly of the number 3 centered over its brim. A cross hung from a chain around his neck.

In addition to size, the man’s other striking feature was his stillness. Winge sat with fingers laced, eyes down, perfectly motionless.

Slidell and I approached. “Grady Winge?”

When Winge glanced up, Slidell badged him.

Winge looked at the shield but said nothing.

Slidell and I sat in the plastic chairs facing Winge.

“You know why we’re here.” Slidell laid it out as statement, not question.

Winge said nothing.

“I see you’re a Dale Earnhardt fan.” I gestured at the cap.

“Yes, ma’am.”

“He was the best.” I wasn’t really sure.

“Yes, ma’am.”

“Cindi Gamble and Cale Lovette disappeared from this Speedway on October 14, 1998.” Slidell was in no mood for small talk.

“According to the file, you were the last person to see them that day.”

Again Winge offered nothing.

“You stated that Gamble and Lovette argued with a man around six that evening. The three then drove off.”

“That’s right.”

“Did you recognize the man?”

“I’d seen him around.”

“Are you sure the couple was Gamble and Lovette?”

A moment passed. Then, “I’m sure it was Lovette.”

“How’s that?”

“Lovette worked here.”

“You ever see Lovette outside of the track?”

Winge shrugged. “I mighta.”

“And where was that?”

“A place called the Double Shot.”

“The Double Shot Tap in Mooresville?”

I figured Slidell knew the name from Rinaldi’s notes.

“I had my trailer up by the lake, so I’d catch a beer there now and again.”

“Lovette was a regular?”

“He’d drink with his buddies.”

“Militia types.”

Winge said nothing.

“Well?” Gruff.

“Well what?”

“Give me an answer.”

“Give me a question.”

“Don’t screw with me, asshole.”

“They mighta been.”

“Let me ask you, Grady. You saddle up with the posse?”

Winge’s Adam’s apple bobbed. A moment passed. “I’m a different man now.”

“You’re a prince,” Slidell said. “How about some names?”

“There was a guy named J.D. Another called Buster. Maybe an E-Man. That’s all I remember.”

“Good start. Real names? Last names?”

“J. D. Danner. That’s the only one I ever caught.”

Slidell wiggled his fingers in a “give me more” gesture.

“J.D. was the boss,” Winge offered.

“What’s that mean?”

“He said what to do.”

“What did J.D. say to do?”

Winge dropped his chin and clasped the cross suspended from his neck. I could see dandruff coating the swath of shiny scalp bisecting his hair.

Noting the man’s discomfort, I raised a silencing hand. Slidell sighed but yielded.

“Mr. Winge, we think something bad might have happened to Cale and Cindi.”

Winge raised his eyes to mine.

“Did the Patriot Posse have a political agenda?” I asked.

“What’s that mean?”

“When you met, what did you talk about?”

“Hating black people, Jews, people in Washington. Blaming our problems on everybody but our own selves.”

“Did you ever consider violence?”

Winge’s eyes took on a guarded look. He didn’t answer.

“Did you ever discuss blowing things up? Setting fires? Planting poison?”

“No way.”

“Do you know where we can find J. D. Danner?”

“No.”

“Do you still see him at the Double Shot?”

Winge shook his head. “I took Jesus into my heart.” His head dipped as his lips spoke the name. “The Lord don’t approve of liquor. When I cast out Satan, I quit going to bars.”

“Mr. Winge, do you think Cindi and Cale left on their own?”

The massive shoulders rose, then fell.

“Do you think J.D. and his posse had anything to do with their disappearance?”

Winge overshook his head. “No, ma’am. I don’t.”

Again I switched course.

“In your statement, you said Cale and Cindi got into a car.”

“A ’sixty-five Petty-blue Mustang with a lime-green decal on the passenger-side windshield.”

“Had you seen the car before?”

“No. But that was one sweet ride. And that color. I met Richard Petty a couple of times. Primo racer. Cool dude.”

“Can you describe the driver?”

“Nothing special. Medium height, dark hair. Not real tall, not real short. I suppose he could have been black.”

Out of ideas, I posed the same question I’d posed to Williams and Randall. “What do you think happened to Cale and Cindi?”

“I pray to the sweet Lord Jesus their souls found peace.”

“PRICK JUST WASTED AN HOUR OF MY LIFE.”

“The time wasn’t wasted.”

Slidell and I were back in the Taurus. He was whacking the AC so hard I was sure he’d break one of the levers.

“Maybe Danner still drinks at the Double Shot.”

“Life should be that easy.”

A rivulet of sweat broke from Slidell’s hairline as he yanked his mobile from his belt and punched in digits.

In minutes we had an answer. The Double Shot was still pouring from noon until two a.m. daily.

Mooresville edges up to a meandering man-made body of water called Lake Norman. Situated roughly twenty-five miles from Charlotte, in Iredell County, the little hamlet is home to twenty-five thousand citizens and a buffalo ranch.

Along with the surrounding towns of Huntersville, Cornelius, Kannapolis, and Concord, Mooresville is also home to a truckload of NASCAR team shops. Bobby Labonte. Martin Truex, Jr. Brian Vickers. Thus the burg’s self-selected moniker: Race City, U.S.A.

We found the Double Shot on a narrow strip of two-lane a mile and a half east of I-77. Located on neither the lakeshore nor the interstate, the place in all likelihood depended on the business of locals who were regulars.

Curb appeal was definitely not the draw. The building was a 1950s-style ranch with red siding turned salmon by years of sun. DOUBLE SHOT had been hand-lettered on the highway-facing wall sometime this century, then never touched up.

Four motorcycles formed a line outside the front entrance. Two pickups sat at careless angles in the gravel lot.

I must watch too much TV. When Slidell and I entered, I expected every eye to swing our way. Didn’t happen.

To the left, two men played pool while a third watched, legs straddling, arms draping a back-turned chrome and vinyl chair. At the bar, a pair of beer drinkers continued their conversation. At the opposite end, another customer focused on his burger.

Painted windows kept the Double Shot’s interior dim. Overhead fans created a jumpy, surreal effect by dancing the neon oranges, reds, and blues glowing from wall-mounted beer signs.

As my eyes adjusted, my mind logged detail.

Three wooden booths ran the wall to the right of the entrance. A pointing-finger sign indicated that toilets lay somewhere beyond the booths.

Straight ahead, tables filled floor space fronting the bar. Behind it, a gray-bearded man washed mugs by moving them on a brush fixed upright beside the sink.

Every patron was male. Three were heavily tattooed. Four badly needed a trip to the barber. Two had shaved heads. Despite the ninety-degree heat, all wore jeans and heavy leather boots.

Slidell’s eyes probed every shadow as we crossed to the bar. The tension in his shoulders told me he was locked and loaded.

Though Gray Beard never raised his head, I knew he was tracking us. Slidell and I stopped in front of him and waited.

Gray Beard continued his piston-cycle moves with the glassware.

“You want I should flash the shield, impress your upscale clientele?” Slidell said, not all that quietly.

“They know who you are.” Gray Beard set down a mug. Picked up and started cleaning another.

“That so?”

“They can smell cop.”

“Look at me, dipshit.”

Gray Beard’s eyes rolled up. In the gloom, their whites looked urine-yellow.

“We can chat here,” Slidell said. “Or we can chat someplace nice and official. And while we’re gone, I can have every inspector north of Aiken checking this dump out.”

“How can I help you, Officer?” Faux-polite.

“How about we start with your name.”

“Posey. Kermit Posey.”

“That a joke?”

“I don’t joke.”

“This your joint?”

Posey nodded.

“I’m interested in a guy name of J. D. Danner.”

Posey set the mug beside others sitting on a blue-and-white-checkered towel.

“I’m waiting, asshole.” Slidell’s tone was dangerous. “But not very long.”

“This look like a place folks trade business cards?”

“J. D. Danner.”

“I might have heard the name.”

“I have a witness says Danner was a regular here back in ’ninety-eight.”

“That was a long time ago.”

“Says Danner rolled with a group called themselves the Patriot Posse.”

Posey hiked one shoulder. So what? Could be? Who knows?

Reaching across the bar, Slidell grabbed Posey’s beard and pulled the man’s face to within inches of his own. “Having trouble hearing me, Kermit? That better?”

Posey gagged and braced both hands on the bar. To either side, conversation and burger consumption halted. Behind us, pool balls stopped clicking, and the banter went still.

“Danner still enjoying a brew now and then?”

Posey nodded as best he could, then a wet sound rose from his throat, half gag, half cough.

“Where can I find him?”

“I only heard rumors.”

“Indulge me,” Slidell said.

“Word is he lives in Cornelius.” Posey cough-gagged again. “Honest to God, that’s all I know.”

Slidell released his grip.

Posey tumbled backward, fingers clawing the counter for purchase. The towel flew. Mugs hit the floor in an explosion of glass.

Slidell chin-cocked the shards.

“Saved you some washing.”

Back in the Taurus, Slidell again attacked the AC. While he phoned headquarters, I dialed the MCME.

Larabee told me that the landfill John Doe had been confiscated under a provision of the Medical Examiner/Coroner’s Guide for Contaminated Deceased Body Management.

“Because of the ricin,” I said.

“Which is bullshit. The ricin toxin can’t spread from person to person. You’ve got to breathe or eat the stuff.”

Or get jabbed with an umbrella.

Slidell barked something, then tossed his phone onto the dash.

“Where was the body taken?” I asked Larabee.

“The FBI is stonewalling on that. But I’ll find out. I’ll goddamn well find out.”

Slidell positioned the mock Ray-Bans, clicked his seat belt, and shifted into gear.

“Keep me in the loop,” I said, then disconnected.

Gravel flew from our tires as Slidell gunned from the lot.

“Get an address for Danner?” I asked.

“They’re working on it.”

Knowing Slidell would share when ready, I held my tongue. It was pointless to press.

A minute later he was ready.

“Lynn Marie Hobbs attended NC State from ’ninety-eight until 2001. Didn’t graduate. Married a guy named Dean Nolan in 2002, now goes by Lynn Nolan.”

Static spit from the radio. Slidell reached out and twisted the knob.

“After leaving school, Nolan returned to the old homestead. Works for an outfit called the Cryerton Respiratory Research Institute. CRRI. Headquarters is in some sort of industrial park near China Grove.”

I thought a moment. “The Southeast Regional Research Park?”

“That’s it.”

China Grove is a stone’s throw from Kannapolis.

“I assume we’re heading there now?”

“Eeyuh.”

“Is Nolan expecting us?”

“I figure a surprise might liven things up.”

“What does CRRI do?”

“Call me crazy, but I’m guessing they spend a lot of time thinking about lungs.”

Pointedly, I turned my face toward the window.

Corn rows marched to the horizon, dark and shimmery in the afternoon heat. Above them, a red-tailed hawk looped lazy circles low in the sky.

Instead of returning to I-77, Slidell cut west on NC-152. Just before China Grove, he made three right turns, then a left onto a wide paved road.

No cornfields here. Wild flowers as far as the eye could see. A veritable Monet ocean of color.

A quarter mile up the blacktop, redbrick walls stretched to each shoulder, and large iron gates blocked access to manicured grounds beyond. A stone plaque identified the Southeast Regional Research Park.

Slidell stopped at the guardhouse and lowered his window. A uniformed young man emerged with a clipboard. “May I help you?”

“We’re looking for Lynn Nolan.”

“Yes, sir. I’ll check the list.”

“We aren’t on it.”

“I’m sorry, but—”

Slidell held out his badge.

The man studied it earnestly. “Do you have a warrant?”

“Why? Something going on here gonna cause problems?”

“I’ll have to call for clearance.”

“No,” Slidell said. “You won’t. Nolan works for CRRI. Where do I find her?”

“Building Three. Second floor.”

“You have a real special day.” Slidell hit a button and his window hummed up.

The man retreated, the gates opened, and Slidell drove through.

The Southeast Regional Research Park looked like a small college campus in Mississippi. Brick buildings fronted by broad steps, Greco-Roman pillars, porticos, and pediments. Covered parking garages. Well-groomed gardens. Boisterously green grass which seemed to stretch for several hundred acres. Small lake complete with ducks, geese, and a swan.

Yet nothing stirred. The effect was like one of those disaster movies in which a virus destroys life but leaves the hardscape intact.

Building 3 was a four-story number on Progress Avenue. Flanking both sides were half-completed foundations, suggesting progress had been less than desired.

Ignoring the no-parking signs, Slidell pulled to the curb. We got out and entered Building 3 through tinted glass doors.

The lobby was all gleaming rosewood and marble, with a futuristic stone sculpture parked in the center. A directory verified that CRRI was located in 204.

A spotless elevator took us to the second floor. There the decorator’s palette had been labeled something like sand or wheat. Beige walls, beige trim, beige carpet, beige chairs, each shade just a hair off the others. The only color came from framed black and whites with highlighted details. A woman’s red lips. A green umbrella. A blue and yellow tail dangling from a kite.

Room 204 was halfway down on the right.

A woman occupied a desk directly opposite and facing the door. She was tiny, with caramel eyes, sun-bronzed skin, and long brown hair spilling from a barrette atop her head.

When we entered, the woman’s eyes widened. A manicured hand flew to her mouth. “Are you really going to arrest me?”

So much for the guard not announcing our presence.

THE WOMAN WATCHED US CROSS TO THE DESK, HER BODY RIGID with apprehension.

“Lynn Nolan?” Not a bark, but close.

Nolan nodded, lavender-tipped fingers still pressed to her lips. Slidell flipped his badge. “Got some questions about Cindi Gamble.”

Nolan’s eyes now went impossibly wide.

“You remember Cindi Gamble?”

Nolan nodded again.

“You want we should do this standing?”

The hand left Nolan’s mouth and fluttered toward two desk-facing chairs.

As we sat, Nolan’s gaze flicked to me, but she said nothing.

While Slidell started the interview, I looked around.

The furnishings were standard reception-room walnut and tweed, including Nolan’s desk, our chairs, and a love seat centered on the back wall. Fronting the love seat was a coffee table heaped with magazines. Every title contained the terms “air,” “atmosphere,” or “energy.” As in the corridor, beige ruled.

Above Nolan’s head, a mural displayed the CRRI logo, a stylized windmill with greenery twining the central post. Three words circled the blades: GENOMICS. PROTEOMICS. METABOLOMICS.

“You the receptionist?” Slidell produced his spiral, more for effect than note-taking, I suspected.

Another nod.

“What goes on here?”

“Research.”

Slidell stared at Nolan. She stared back.

“Why am I getting the impression you’re not enjoying our visit?”

“Into air pollution.”

By my count, that brought Nolan’s total word count to four.

“Research for who?” Slidell positioned his pen.

“Industrial consortia, clinical trials companies, R and D firms, consulting groups.” The answer sounded rote. Nolan had obviously given the spiel before.

Slidell jotted something, then got to the point.

“You attended A. L. Brown High with Cindi Gamble?”

Nolan nodded again. She was very good at it.

“Tell me about her.”

“Like what?”

“Dig deep, Miss Nolan.”

“It’s Mrs.”

“Uh-huh.”

“I hardly knew her. Like, Cindi wanted to drive race cars. That wasn’t my thing.”

“But you were friends.”

“Just at school. Sometimes we, like, ate lunch together.”

Nolan was gouging a cuticle on one thumb with the acrylic nail on the other. I wondered why a visit from the cops was unnerving her so badly.

“And?” Slidell prodded.

“And then she disappeared.”

“That’s it?”

“We didn’t hang out senior year.”

“Why was that?”

“Like, her boyfriend was a jerk.”

“Cale Lovette.”

Major-league eye roll. “The guy gave me the creeps.”

“Why was that?”

“The whole shaved-head-and-tattoo thing. Gross.”

“That what turned you off? Lovette’s sense of style?”

Vertical lines dented the bridge of Nolan’s nose. Then, “He and his psycho-loser friends were always talking about guns. They thought it was cool to crawl around in the woods and play soldier. I thought it was dumb.”

“That it?”

“They had all these weird ideas.”

“Like what?”

“Like the Japanese blew up that building in Oklahoma. I mean, how dumb is that? Oh, and the United Nations was going to take over the government. There were people, like, setting up concentration camps in national parks.”

“In your statement back in ’ninety-eight, you said you overheard Lovette discussing poison with someone.”

“Another gross-o.”

“Bald and inked?”

“No. Old and hairy.”

“Did you know the guy?”

“No.”

“You stated that Lovette and his buddy were talking about poisoning something.”

Nolan’s eyes dropped to the cuticle. Which was now bleeding. “I could have got it wrong. I wasn’t, like, trying to eavesdrop. But they were pretty—” Nolan circled both hands in the air. “What’s that word for when people, you know, gesture a lot?”

“Animated?” I suggested.

“Yeah. Animated. I passed them when I went to the ladies’.”

“What were they saying?” Slidell.

“Something about poisoning a system. And an ax or something.”

“Where did this conversation take place?”

“A really lame bar up by Lake Norman.”

“Name?”

“I don’t remember.”

“Why were you there?”

“Cindi wanted to hook up with Cale, but she knew her parents would flip out, you know, about her being in a bar. She told them there was a school party and talked me into going along to back up the lie. The place was, like, scuzz city.”

“This was a couple of months before Lovette and Gamble went missing.”

“It was summer. That’s all I remember.”

“You think Lovette and his buddies were plotting something illegal?”

“Like robbing a bank?” The caramel eyes were now perfectly round.

“Let’s think here, Lynn. Poison?” Nolan’s dim-wittedness was wearing on Slidell.

“I don’t know. Maybe. Cale was mean as a snake.”

“Tell me about that.”

“Cindi showed up at school one time with bruises on her arms. Like fingerprints, you know?” Nolan was becoming more expressive, using her hands for emphasis. “She never said so, but I think Cale was smacking her around.”

Slidell rotated one hand. Go on.

“Sometimes he talked to her like she was stupid. Cindi wasn’t stupid. She was in STEM. Those people were all, like, scary smart.” A lavender nail jabbed the air. “There’s someone might know more than me. Maddy Padgett. She was in STEM, too. Maddy was totally into cars and engines. I think she and Cindi were tight.”

Slidell scribbled a note. Then, “Why’d Gamble put up with Lovette treating her like crap?”

“She loved him.” As though the question confused her.

“You think she went off with him?”

“Huh-uh.”

“What’s your take?”

Nolan looked from Slidell to me, then back. Her response was delivered with breathy affect. “I think Cale killed her, then ran away.”

Humid air pressed our skin as Slidell and I walked back to the Taurus. The sun was a silver-white disc in the sky. An anemic breeze carried the smell of hot brick and mowed grass.

“Brain power of a newt.”

I suspected Slidell was underestimating the amphibian. Didn’t say so.

“What was that shit above her head?”

I wasn’t sure if he meant Nolan’s updo or the logo. I went with the latter. “Genomics is the study of the genomes of organisms.”

“Like figuring out their DNA?”

“Yes. Proteomics is the study of proteins. Metabolomics is the study of cellular processes.” Oversimplified but close enough.

“How’s all that fit in with air pollution?”

“I’ll Google CRRI.”

Slidell and I got into the car. The heat was worthy of Death Valley.

“What do you think of Nolan’s theory?” I asked after securing my belt.

“That Lovette killed Gamble? The thought crossed my mind.”

“Really?”

Slidell didn’t elaborate until he’d turned the key, maxed the air-conditioning, and unwrapped and popped a stick of Juicy Fruit into his mouth.

“In his notes, Eddie mentions a guy name of Owen Poteat.” Slidell made a U-ey toward the main drag. “Back in ’ninety-eight, Poteat claimed he saw Lovette at the Charlotte airport on the twenty-fourth of October.”

The implication was clear.

“That was ten days after Lovette and Gamble disappeared from the Speedway. How did Poteat know it was Lovette?”

“He’d seen a photo on a flyer. Said the tats and bald head caught his attention.”

“Was Poteat considered credible?”

“The task force thought so. According to Eddie, Poteat’s statement played heavy into the conclusion that Lovette and Gamble took off.”

“What about Cindi?” I asked.

“What about her?”

“Did Poteat see her at the airport with Lovette?”

“Apparently he wasn’t so sure. But here’s the thing.”

Slidell flipped a wave at the guard as we exited the gates. The young man watched us roll through but didn’t wave back.

“At the back of the notebook, Eddie had a page marked with big question marks.”

“Meaning?”

“Meaning he had questions.” Slidell reached out and smacked the AC control with the heel of one hand.

Easy, Brennan.

“Questions about Poteat?” I asked oh-so-precisely.

“Who the hell knows? For that entry, he used one of his codes. Means nothing to me.” Slidell yanked his spiral from a shirt pocket and tossed it to me. “I copied the stuff into there.”

ME/SC 2X13G-529 OTP FU

Wi-Fr 6–8

When hurried or feeling the need for discretion, Rinaldi used a form of shorthand known only to him. The cryptic notations were typical.

“Maine and South Carolina?” I guessed, looking at the longer entry.

Slidell shrugged.

I played with the alphanumeric combo. “Could it be a license plate?”

“I’ll run it.”

“FU probably means follow up.”

I played some more. Came up blank.

“Can I have this?”

“Yeah, sure.”

I tore the page free and slipped it into my purse. Then, “Who is Owen Poteat?”

“I’ll know soon.”

I settled back and closed my eyes. The heat and the car’s motion acted like drugs. I was dropping off when my mobile sounded.

Joe Hawkins.

I clicked on.

“Hey, Joe.” Sluggish.

“Forensics called with a prelim on the goop from the barrel. Good old asphalt, just like we thought.”

“Not very useful.”

“Maybe no, maybe yes. The sample contained an additive called Rosphalt, a synthetic dry-mix material made by Royston. Provides waterproofing, skid resistance, protects against rutting and shoving, thermal fatigue cracking, that kind of thing. ”

“Uh-huh.” Stifling a yawn.

“Rosphalt comes in three types. One’s used mainly for roadways and tunnels, another’s used on airport runways. You still there?”

“I’m here.” Though struggling to stay awake.

“Your sample contained the third type, R50/Rx. That one’s used mostly by motor speedways.”

My brain reengaged. “At the Charlotte Motor Speedway?”

“Knew you’d ask, so I gave a call out there. The track has some pretty steep banking. What with the sun and cars screaming around the curves, the asphalt can heat up, go liquid, and sink right down. They use Rosphalt to provide better holding power.”

“I’ll be damned. So the asphalt in the barrel probably came from the Speedway.”

“Seems logical to me. The track’s right there.”

“Thanks, Joe.”

I disconnected and told Slidell. “The Rosphalt connects the landfill John Doe to the track.” I was totally pumped.

“Whaddya saying? The victim was killed at the Speedway, stuffed in a barrel, sealed in, and dumped at the landfill?”

“Why not? Thirty-five-gallon oil cans are common at speed-ways.”

While Slidell was gnawing on that theory, my phone sounded again. This time it was Larabee.

“These assholes have gone too far!”

“Which assholes?”

“They won’t get away with this.”

“Get away with what?”

“The goddamn FBI torched our John Doe!”

THE BUZZING IN MY PHONE WAS SO AGITATED THAT SLIDELL kept glancing my way. Again and again I gestured his eyes back to the road.

Peppered with expletives, the story came out.

Through multiple calls, many threats, and the intervention of the chief ME in Chapel Hill, Larabee had finally pried loose information on the whereabouts of MCME 227-11. Since the presence of ricin suggested the possibility of bioterrorism, the landfill John Doe had been confiscated under a provision of the Patriot Act and taken to a lab in Atlanta. There the body had been re-autopsied and new samples collected.

Far from standard protocol but understandable.

Then the bombshell.

Due to an unfortunate combination of circumstances, including a mix-up in paperwork, understaffing, and an error on the part of an inexperienced tech, instead of back to the cooler, the landfill John Doe had accidentally been sent for cremation.

Larabee was livid. Before disconnecting, he threatened complaints to the governor, the Department of Justice, the director of the FBI, the secretary of Homeland Security, the White House, maybe the pope.

I decided it was a bad time to mention the Rosphalt.

As Slidell maneuvered through rush-hour traffic, I told him about the fate of the John Doe.

“That smell right to you?” I asked.

“As right as a barrel of week-old fish.”

Slidell said nothing further until we were parked beside my car at the MCME. Then he grasped the wheel and rotated toward me. “What’s your take, Doc?”

I ticked off points on my fingers.

“A couple vanishes in 1998. Family and associates disagree with a task force finding that the two left voluntarily. The missing couple has ties to and is last seen at a motor speedway. Years later a body turns up in a barrel of asphalt. That barrel is discovered in a landfill adjacent to said speedway, in a sector and layer dating from the late nineties to 2005.”

I moved to my other hand.

“The asphalt in the barrel contains an additive commonly used at speedways. An autopsy finds that the body is contaminated with ricin, a poison once favored by anti-government extremists. The male member of the missing couple belonged to a right-wing militia. When the ricin is reported to the FBI, the body is confiscated and destroyed.”

Slidell was silent for so long, I was certain he was about to blow me off. He didn’t.

“You’re thinking the landfill John Doe is connected to the Gamble-Lovette disappearance?”

I nodded.

“How?”

“I don’t know.”

“Who was the stiff?”

“I don’t know.”

“Lovette?”

“The age indicators are off, but I can’t rule him out.”

“What about this guy Raines from Atlanta?”

“The barrel looked way too old. And the sector it came from doesn’t fit with a recent body dump.”

“But your voice is telling me you can’t rule him out, either.”

“No. I can’t.”

Again Slidell went quiet. Then, “Maybe Cindi Gamble’s baby brother isn’t crackers after all.”

“About a cover-up back in ’ninety-eight?”

Slidell ran a hand over his jaw. Did it again. Then, “Those fucking suits picked the wrong cop to screw with.”

“What do you propose?”

“First off, another heart-to-heart with your NASCAR buddy.”

I was approaching my kitchen door, lugging a Harris Teeter bag, when a silver Rx-8 turned in to the circle drive at Sharon Hall. Thinking it was probably my ex, and not thrilled with the prospect of another go-round concerning Summer, I paused.

The Mazda looped the front of the manor house and headed toward me. As it neared, I could see the driver’s head in silhouette. Oddly pear-shaped, its crown barely cleared the wheel.

Definitely not Pete.

Curious and a little wary, I watched the car pull to the same piece of curb occupied by Williams and Randall on Saturday.

The man who got out had a pompadour that brought his height to maybe five-four. Grecian Formula had turned the do a dead-lemur brown.

The man’s clothes looked expensive. Ice-green silk shirt. Tommy Bahama linen pants. Softer-than-a-newborn’s-bum leather loafers. Armani sunglasses perched on a hawklike nose.

“Good evening, Dr. Brennan.” The man proffered a hand sporting a sapphire the size of Birdie’s paw. “J. D. Danner.”

“Do I know you, sir?”

“Word is you know of me.” Despite the smile, Danner had a hostile, intimidating air.

Ping.

“You were an associate of Cale Lovette. A member of the Patriot Posse.”

“I was commander of the posse, ma’am.”

I adjusted my grip on the groceries.

Danner took a step toward me. “May I help with that?”

“No. Thank you.”

Two palms came up. “Just offering assistance.”

“Do you have information about Cale Lovette or Cindi Gamble?”

“No, ma’am. Nice kids. I hope they found what they were looking for.”

“And what was that?”

“Life. Liberty. Happiness. Isn’t that what we’re all seeking?”

“What can I do for you, Mr. Danner?”

“Get off our backs.”

“Meaning?”

“The Patriot Posse took Cale Lovette under its wing. Provided support. Guidance. A family. When he vanished, we were the first ones in the crosshairs.” Again the insincere smile. “The posse had nothing to do with whatever happened to Lovette and his girlfriend.”

“Why would Lovette need the posse’s support?”

“The kid was floundering. High school dropout. Dead-end job. Estranged father. Loony-tune mother.”

That was the first I’d heard of Lovette’s home life.

“Making him easy prey for your conspiratorial anti-American ideology,” I said.

Danner crossed his arms and spread his feet. Which were small, like the rest of him. An image of Napoleon popped in my brain.

“Back then we were undisciplined, perhaps naive in many ways. But we were far from anti-American.”

“Were?”

“The Patriot Posse disbanded in 2002.”

“What was the group’s purpose?”

“The posse functioned as an unorganized militia.”

Typical right-wing fascist-speak. In federal and state law, the term “unorganized militia” refers to the nominal manpower pool created a century ago when federal law formally abandoned compulsory militia service.

“I prefer the army, navy, air force, and marines,” I said.

“The Patriot Posse was, like other organizations of its kind, equivalent to the statutory militia. It was a legal, constitutional arm of the government. But the posse was not controlled by the government.” A diminutive finger wagged back and forth in the air. “That’s the difference. The posse existed to oppose the government should it become tyrannical.”

“You believe the government might become tyrannical?”

“Dr. Brennan, please. You are an intelligent woman.”

“Indeed I am.”

“Recent history speaks for itself. The elections of Bill Clinton and Barack Obama. The Rodney King riots. The North American Free Trade Agreement. The dozens of bills currently under consideration that would rob us of our firearms. The murders at Ruby Ridge and Waco.”

“Murders.”

“Of course.”

“Those compounds were stockpiled with enough firepower to take out a city.”

Danner ignored that. “The government will stop at nothing to eliminate people who refuse to conform. Independent militias must exist to protect the freedoms that our founding fathers died to ensure.”

Knowing argument was pointless, I switched topics. “Tell me about Cale Lovette’s parents.”

Danner dropped his chin. Drew a breath. Let it out through his nose. “I don’t like to speak badly, but Katherine Lovette was not what you’d call a lady. She was, how should I put it? A NASCAR groupie. If you take my meaning.”

“I don’t.”

“Some women whore themselves to rock stars. For Kitty Lovette, it was NASCAR. Owners. Drivers. Mechanics. Didn’t much matter. She worked the whole circuit back in the seventies.”

“Meaning she slept around.” Danner’s holier-than-thou attitude irritated me.

Danner nodded. “Of course she got pregnant. Named the baby after Cale Yarborough. He was winning a lot of races back then.”

“Are you saying Yarborough was Cale’s father?”

“No, no. Nothing like that. For years Kitty never said. But the baby grew to be the spitting image of a track hangaround name of Craig Bogan. Red hair. Blue eyes. Dimpled chin. By the time he was six, the kid looked like a clone. When Kitty finally fingered Bogan, he moved in with her. But the relationship was doomed from the outset.”

“How so?”

“Bogan was in his mid-twenties. But smart. Ambitious. Kitty hadn’t seen thirty in quite some time. And she—” Danner gave a tight shake of his head. “Well, enough said.”

“How did Kitty support herself?”

“Sold herbs and vegetables grown at her house. Barely made enough to feed herself and the kid. Bogan actually turned the venture into a reasonable business, eventually bought it from her, house and all. Branched out. Added services like delivering produce to your door, planting flowers and shrubs in your garden.”

“You knew both of them?”

Did I imagine it, or did Danner stiffen a bit at my question?

“I steered clear of Kitty.”

“Go on,” I said.

“By the time Cale was twelve, Kitty was heavy into booze and drugs. She finally OD’ed his freshman year of high school. Rumor was the kid found her.” Again the head shake. “Things grew tense. Two years after Kitty’s death, Bogan and Cale had a big throw-down, the kid dropped out of school, left home for good.”

“Where did he go?”

“Cale had a passion for stock car racing, probably the only thing he got from his parents. He’d spent a lot of time hanging around dirt tracks, made some friends. Small-timers, wannabes. He mostly bunked with them.”

I thought a moment. “Does Bogan still live in the area?”

Danner shrugged. Who knows?

“Tell me about Cindi.”

“Girl-next-door. Real clean and shiny.”

“Could you be more specific?”

“She was smart enough, if that’s what you mean. And focused. All she talked about was driving NASCAR. Seemed her parents spent a lot of money on making that happen. Got her into Bandolero racing.”

“Which is?”

Danner gave me a pitying look. “Entry level. A Bandolero car is built like a miniature stock car, with a tube frame and a sheet-metal cage. The driver enters through the roof. I guess you could say it falls somewhere between a kart and a car.”

I must have looked lost.

“Like a kart, a Bandolero car has left-foot braking and a centrifugal clutch, so there’s no gearshifting to worry about. The whole idea is simplicity and economy. Just one hundred and fifty parts make up the whole package.”

“How fast do theses cars go?”

“Upwards of seventy miles per hour. But they accelerate relatively slowly.”

“They’re for kids?”

“Most Bandolero drivers are from eight to sixteen years old, but there’s no rule against older folks.”

“They race on real tracks?”

“One-quarter-, three-eighths-, and four-tenths-mile ovals, some road courses, some dirt tracks. There are three divisions. Cindi Gamble raced Beginner Bandit.”

I was glad Katy hadn’t learned about this when she was a kid. She’d have loved roaring around at seventy miles per hour.

But I was off topic.

“Did Cindi seem committed to Lovette?” I asked.

“I’d say so.”

“Where did they meet?”

“Concord Speedway, out in Midland. That’s where she and Lovette spent most of their time.”

“How did Lovette treat her?”

“Fair enough.”

“What does that mean?”

“They came from different worlds. Cindi was a high school kid from the burbs. Lovette’s mother was a dead junkie, and his father was a truck farmer. Cale wanted to race as much as Cindi did, but his folks weren’t footing the bill.”

“Did Lovette resent Gamble because her parents were supporting her financially?”

I got another shrug.

“Did Cindi have potential?”

“Oh, yeah. She was good. Won her share of races.” Danner wagged his head. “Gal probably could have made it.”

“How did you come to know Craig Bogan and Kitty Lovette?” I asked.

“In those days I went to the track now and then.”

Danner glanced at his watch. Which resembled a ship’s barometer.

“I hope this has been helpful. But the purpose of my visit was to reiterate what I said back in ’ninety-eight. The Patriot Posse had nothing to do with whatever became of those kids.”

Danner pulled a brochure from the pocket of his Tommy Bahamas and held it out. I repositioned the bag and took it.

The thing had been printed on a home computer. A cheerful logo topped the front page, an eagle holding the American flag in its beak. Above the eagle were the words LOYALIST MOVEMENT.

Below the eagle was the phrase: DO THE RIGHT THING. Below that was a photograph showing young men standing in very straight lines. Each wore camouflage fatigues and held a rifle on his shoulder.

“I head an organization that represents almost four thousand citizens in twelve states,” Danner said. “Every one is a patriot.”

Every one is white and male, I thought, glancing at the faces.

“We have nothing to hide, Dr. Brennan. Didn’t then. Don’t now. We’re proud of what we do.”

“Which is?”

“We protect this country from those who would destroy it.”

With that, Danner turned and walked to his car.

THAT NIGHT BROUGHT ANOTHER STORM. AS USUAL, BIRDIE RODE it out in the crook of my knee.

Tuesday morning dawned gray and soggy. Outside the kitchen window, the brick in my garden looked dark with moisture. Mist coated the spiderwebs draping the ivy and ferns.

Slidell phoned at eight. The Coca-Cola 600 was fast approaching, and issues with Stupak’s car required Gamble’s presence in the pit. We’d meet him at the Speedway.

By nine we were in the Taurus, rolling toward Concord. Before picking me up, Slidell had hit a Bojangles’. The air was thick with the smell of biscuits and sausage.

As he drove one-handed, I described my encounter with J. D. Danner. Slidell said he’d check out the Loyalist Movement. He’d already located Lovette’s father. CB Botanicals sold flora from a Weddington property once deeded to Katherine Lovette.

Since it was Tuesday and between races, the scene at the Speedway was much calmer than on the previous Thursday. Though tents and trailers still packed the campgrounds, few fans were in evidence. I guessed a lot of moms were hitting the outlet malls, and a lot of dads were sleeping off hangovers.

Wayne Gamble met us outside the Smith Tower and drove us by car to the Sprint Cup garage area. His face looked sallow. The console sole between us held Pepto-Bismol and a mound of wadded tissues. Empty water bottles lay on the floor at my feet.

Great. Microbes coming my way. Without being obvious, I kept my head turned toward the window.

Gamble’s fellow crew members were busy with the #59 Chevy, so we settled in the empty lounge in Stupak’s hauler. Gamble slumped on the built-in sofa as if his muscles were linguine.

After introducing himself, Slidell recounted our conversation with Lynn Nolan. Then he got straight to the point. “Nolan thinks Lovette was knocking your sister around.”

A flush blossomed in the hollow at the base of Gamble’s throat.

“She thinks Lovette killed her.”

The flush spread up Gamble’s jaw and across his face. Still he said nothing.

“Nolan saw bruising on Cindi’s arms. You ever notice anything along those lines?”

“Oh, Jesus.” Gamble shot to his feet. “Oh, Jesus.”

“That mean no?”

“I’d have killed the guy.”

Seeing Gamble’s agitation, I spoke in a tone I hoped would be calming. “Did Cindi change her habits that summer and fall? Alter her normal routine?”

“How would I know?” Gamble threw up both hands. “She was sixteen. I was twelve. We traveled in different galaxies.” He began pacing.

“How about her demeanor? How did she act?” I asked.

“Scared of her own shadow.”

I gestured for him to continue.

“She was always looking around, you know? Like she was afraid someone was following her. And sometimes she’d bust my balls for no reason. That wasn’t like her.”

“Go on.”

Gamble stopped. To gauge our reactions? “Looking back, I always suspected she might have kicked Lovette to the curb.”

“What makes you think that?”

“A couple weeks before she vanished, Cindi told our mother she’d lost her keys and asked to have all the locks changed at home.”

“And?”

“She hadn’t lost her keys. I saw them in her backpack. Why would she make up a story like that?”

“Why do you think?” I asked.

“I think she dumped Lovette, and it pissed him off. That’s what was making her jumpy. She was afraid he’d come for her. She invented the key thing to be sure the house was secure.”

Gamble resumed pacing, moving like a caged animal in the small space.

“Sit down,” Slidell said.

Unable to stand still, Gamble ignored him.

“You report all this to the cops back then?” Slidell.

“I told some big guy.”

“Galimore?”

Gamble shrugged. “Beats me. I was a kid. I learned later that Galimore was on the task force. I don’t know the guy, but I hear he works security here.”

“Did the cops follow up?”

“Who knows?”

“How about the FBI?”

“I keep telling you. I was a kid. And my parents weren’t on anyone’s speed dial.”

Footsteps clanged up metal stairs, then a door opened at the far end of the hauler. A jumpsuited man leaned in. He was sweating and breathing hard. “We’ve got a problem exiting turn three. The right-rear pressure needs tweaking.”

“Gimme five,” Gamble snapped.

“Stupak’s going apeshit.”

“Five!”

The man withdrew.

“Did you discuss Cindi’s nervousness with your folks?” I asked.

“You think they sought my middle school views on my high school sister’s mood swings?”

Point taken.

“Your parents have passed on, that right?” Slidell asked.

Gamble nodded. “Mom blew an aneurysm in 2005. Two years later Dad was killed in a hit-and-run on the road outside our house. That was fucked up. He’d walked that stretch every day for ten years.”

Slidell’s mobile sounded. Without looking, he reached to his belt and clicked the silencer.

“What do you know about J. D. Danner?” Slidell changed direction.

“Never heard of him. Who is he?”

“Guy ran the Patriot Posse.”

Gamble’s forearm muscles flexed as his fingers curled into fists. “I’m going to find the bastards who did this.”

“Just calm down. You know anything about Danner and his cronies?”

“Look. I keep telling you. I was twelve. I was mostly focused on not getting zits.”

“Your folks ever talk about it?”

A frown creased Gamble’s forehead. Which looked clammy despite the AC.

“I may have heard the name during one of their screaming matches with Cindi.”

“What was said?”

Gamble gave a tight shake of his head. “There was a lot of fighting going on that summer. I used video games to tune it out. All I know is the scenes were always about Lovette.”

“How about a guy named Grady Winge?”

“He works here at the track. Not too bright but OK. Why? Was Winge involved?”

“Cool down. We’re just working the names.” Slidell stifled a pork-sausage belch. “How about Ethel Bradford?”

“She taught chem at A. L. Brown. You found Mrs. B.? What’d she say?”

“She doubts Cindi left on her own.”

“Look. I’m not crazy. Everyone thought the same thing. Didn’t matter. The FBI was telling the cops what to do. And for them, the flag had already dropped.”

Slidell asked a few questions about Maddy Padgett and Lynn Nolan.

Gamble had no memory of Padgett, only a vague one of Nolan. While not flattering, his recall seemed spot-on. Body by Playboy, brains by Mattel.

* * *

Rather than hopping onto I-85, Slidell wound through town on Sharon Amity Road en route to the MCME.

Note about Charlotte. At least a zillion streets are named for a person or place called Sharon. Sharon Road. Sharon Lane. Sharon Lakes. Sharon Oaks. Sharon Hills. Sharon View. Sharon Chase. Sharon Parkway. Don’t know the gal’s story, but it must be a doozy.

For several miles the only sound in the car was radio static. Slidell and I were both turned inward, considering what Gamble had said.

Had Cindi been murdered? According to Nolan, Cale had treated her badly. Because he resented the support she was getting from her parents? Had she finally rebelled? Had Cale killed her because she’d broken off their relationship? Had Cale then disappeared, perhaps assumed a new identity? Had the Patriot Posse helped him slip underground?

Had Cindi and Cale both been murdered? If so, by whom? The Patriot Posse? Why?

Had the task force conclusion been correct? Had Cindi and Cale disappeared voluntarily? If so, why? Where had they gone? Was the Patriot Posse involved?

Were Gamble’s suspicions legitimate? Had the FBI controlled the investigation? Concealed the truth about Cindi and Cale? If so, for what reason?

I thought about the question marks in Rinaldi’s notes. Had Eddie known that something was off? Had Galimore?

My mind bounced like an untethered balloon on the wind, bobbing from one conjecture to another.

I finally broke the silence.

“Cindi was a kid. Cale was far from worldly. If the two left willingly, how did they cover their tracks so effectively? I mean, think about it. Not one single slipup or sighting in all these years?”

“Except for Owen Poteat.”

“The guy at the airport.”

Slidell nodded.

“You learn anything about him?”

“I will.”

“Suppose Gamble’s right. Why would the FBI initiate a cover-up?”

“I’ve been poking at that.”

Slidell made a right onto Providence Road before continuing.

“Say the FBI turned Lovette.”

“Got him to work as a confidential informant?”

Slidell nodded. “Maybe the posse discovered he’d been flipped and capped him and his girlfriend.”

I rolled that around in my head.

“Or maybe the CI was Cindi,” I said. “Maybe she’d had it with Lovette’s abuse and agreed to spy on the posse for the FBI. That would explain her nervousness.”

“Eeyuh.”

“Or what about this? Cindi or Lovette is working from the inside. Their cover is blown. The FBI pulls them both and pipes them into witness protection.”

Slidell didn’t answer.

“We should talk to Cotton Galimore,” I said.

Slidell made that throat sound he makes when disgusted. He disliked Galimore. So did Joe Hawkins. Why?

“What’s Galimore’s story?” I asked.

“He dishonored the badge.”

“By drinking? Other cops have had issues with the bottle.”

“That was part of it.”

“Galimore was bounced from the force. Isn’t that punishment enough?”

The faux Ray-Bans swiveled my way. “That asshole betrayed all of us. And what did he get? A deuce and out.”

“Galimore spent two years in jail?” I hadn’t heard that. “On what charges?”

“Accepting a bribe. Obstruction of justice. The guy’s scum.”

“He must have straightened himself up.”

“Once scum, always scum.”

“Galimore is now head of security at a major speedway.”

Slidell’s jaw hardened, but he said nothing.

I remembered seeing Galimore in Larabee’s office. Recalled his interest in the body from the landfill. The body later confiscated by the FBI.

Coincidence?

I don’t believe in coincidence.

I reminded Slidell. As I was speaking, his cell rang again. This time he answered.

Slidell’s end of the conversation consisted mostly of interrogatives. How many? When? Where? Then he clicked off.

“Sonofabitch.”

“Bad news?”

“Double homicide. You want I should take you home?”

“Yeah. Then I’ll head over to the MCME, tell Larabee about the Rosphalt, and see what else he’s learned about the missing John Doe.”

Though I went, that didn’t happen.

But another issue resolved itself.

A CAREFULLY PENNED POST-IT EXPLAINED THAT MRS. FLOWERS had left the MCME at 11:50, that she was lunching at Alexander Michael’s pub, and that she would return at one p.m.

Hearing a cough, I moved toward the cubicles assigned to death investigators. Inside the second sat a new hire named Susan Volpe. We’d met only once.

Volpe’s head popped up when I appeared at her entrance. She had mocha skin and curly black hair cut in an asymmetric bob. Maybe twenty-five, she was all snowy white teeth and lousy with enthusiasm about her new job.

According to Volpe, Larabee and Hawkins were at a homicide scene. I’d just missed them. The other two pathologists were also away. She didn’t know where.

The erasable board logged three new arrivals. My initials were in a little box beside the number assigned to the third, indicating the case was coming to me.

Walking to my office, I wondered if Hawkins and Larabee had gone to the same address to which Slidell had been called.

A consult request lay on my desk. MCME 239-11. After depositing my purse and laptop, I glanced at the form.

A skull had been found in a creek bed near I-485. Larabee wanted a bio-profile, and especially PMI.

First, lunch.

I went to the kitchen for a Diet Coke to accompany the cheddar-and-tomato sandwich I’d brought from home. I’d barely loosened the wrapping when my landline rang.

Volpe. A cop wanted to see me. I told her to send him through.

Seconds later footsteps echoed in the hall. I turned, expecting Skinny.

Whoa!

Standing in my doorway was a man designed by the gods on Olympus. Then broken.

The man stood six-three and weighed around 240, every ounce rock-solid. His hair was dark, his eyes startlingly green, what Gran would have called black Irish. Only two things kept Mr. God a notch below perfect: a scar cut his right brow, and a subtle kink belied a healed nasal fracture.

My expression must have telegraphed my surprise.

“The lady said to come on back.” Cotton Galimore punched a thumb in the direction of Volpe’s cubicle.

“I was expecting Detective Slidell.”

“Sorry to disappoint.” Grin lines creased the perfect face.

Without awaiting invitation, Galimore entered and foot-hooked a chair toward my desk. My nose registered expensive cologne and just the right hint of male perspiration.

“Sure,” I said. “Come on in.”

“Thanks.” He sat.

“What can I do for you, Mr. Galimore?”

“You know who I am?”

“I know who you are.”

“That a plus?”

“You tell me.”

“You working with Skinny?”

I nodded.

“Condolences.” Again the boyish grin.

I didn’t smile back.

“I’m guessing Slidell’s not one of my fans,” Galimore said.

“He’s not.”

I looked at my sandwich. So did Galimore.

“These tight bastards not paying you enough?”

“I like cheese.”

“Cheese is good.”

“I can’t discuss the body from the landfill, if that’s why you’re here.”

“That’s partly why I’m here.”

“Sorry.”

“You know you’ll have no choice.”

“Really?”

“Really. Sooner or later you’ll have to deal with me.”

Astonished at the man’s arrogance, I simply stared.

Galimore stared back. His hair was grayer at the temples, his face more deeply creased than I’d noticed at first.

Mostly I noticed his eyes. They held me in a way I couldn’t explain.

Galimore looked away first. Glancing down, he drew a pack of Camels from his pocket, slipped one free, and offered it to me.

“This is a no-smoking facility,” I said.

“I don’t like rules.” Sliding matches from beneath the cellophane, he lit up, took a long pull, and slowly exhaled. Acrid smoke floated over my desk.

“Aren’t we the rebel.” Cool.

Galimore shrugged.

I fought the urge to grab the cigarette and stub it out on his forehead.

“My office. My rules,” I said with an arctic smile.

“In that case, happy to comply.”

Galimore took another draw, exhaled, then extinguished the Camel on the side of my wastebasket. When he straightened and exhaled, another noxious gray cloud drifted my way.

“Detective Slidell is not known for his objectivity,” he said.

I couldn’t argue with that.

“Did he give you the full story?”

“He told me you drank.”

“I did. But never on the job.”

“And that you went to jail.”

“I had that delight.”

“For accepting a bribe.”

“I was set up.”

“Of course.”

“You want to know what happened?”

I flipped a palm. Whatever.

“The week before my arrest, I’d busted a junkie name of Wiggler Coonts. Real fine citizen. The cops wanted me more than they wanted Wiggler, so they talked his lawyer into wearing a wire. The scumbag tracked me to a bar and started buying. I said some stupid things. No question. But it was textbook entrapment.”

“Doesn’t sound like a basis for a criminal conviction.”

“A wad of cash turned up in a storage bin in the basement of my condo complex.”

“Hardly incriminating.”

“It was my bin.”

“But not your wad.”

“Never saw it before.”

“You saying the cops planted it?”

“You saying they didn’t?”

“Why?”

“They were looking for cause to boot me.”

“Seems pretty extreme.”

“That was just part of it.”

Galimore crooked his right ankle onto his left knee. His tan slacks rode up to reveal one sockless calf.

“This came down while the Gamble-Lovette disappearances were topping the call sheet. There was a lot of pressure to clear the case. I was considered, shall we say, an impediment to swift closure.”

“Why was that?”

Galimore gestured at my sandwich. “How about we find something better than cheese. I’ll tell you all about it.”

My libido gave an immediate thumbs-up.

My neocortex took time to consider.

Slidell would go ballistic. Hawkins would sulk. Larabee would object.

But Galimore had been part of the Gamble-Lovette task force. It was possible he had useful information. Probable.

“I’ll meet you at Bad Daddy’s in twenty minutes,” I said.

“I can’t discuss the landfill John Doe.” I’d said it earlier but wanted to make myself clear.

Galimore was at the back of the restaurant, working on a sweaty glass of iced tea.

“Understood.”

I slid into the booth.

“What did you tell Skinny?”

“I do not clear my actions with Detective Slidell.” Sharp.

Galimore laughed and shook his head. “You’re as feisty as they say.”

“Thanks.”

A waitress appeared with menus and introduced herself as Ellen. “Fill-up?”

Galimore nodded.

To me, “Sweet tea?”

“Diet Coke, please.”

When Ellen returned with my drink, I ordered the Mama Ricotta burger. Galimore went for a make-your-own salad and chose a score of ingredients.

When Ellen withdrew, I decided to take control.

“Are you implying you were framed for refusing to go along with the task force conclusion on Cindi Gamble and Cale Lovette?”

“I’m not implying, I’m saying it straight out.”

“Why?”

“There were a number of reasons the cops wanted me out of the way. Yeah, I was drinking. And I’d made some enemies on the force. For a while I thought that was it. I believed the DA really bought in to the bribe thing. The tape was damned incriminating, then the money sealed it.”

Galimore’s eyes swept the room, came back to me.

“Jail’s not like prison. It’s a holding tank. Since there’s nothing to do, you spend a lot of time thinking. The more I thought, the more things started to bug me.”

“Things?”

“Loose ends that didn’t tie up.”

A couple of teens moved toward the booth beside ours. He wore a tank and basketball shorts that hung to his knees. She featured a floopy little skirt that struggled to cover her bum.

“The Gambles refused to accept that their daughter left on her own,” I said. “Are you saying they were right?”

“Maybe.”

“Did you share your doubts with them?”

“Wasn’t my place.”

“Why are you telling me?”

“In retrospect, I realize that the investigation left holes big enough for a Humvee.”

“Loose ends.”

Galimore nodded. “That summer, Cindi asked to have the locks changed at home. Her kid brother thought it was because she was afraid of Lovette.”

“What did you think?”

“I thought it was because she was afraid of something. When I shared this information with the FBI, they blew me off. For me, that doesn’t skew right. When you learn a missing kid was scared, you find out why.”

Ellen arrived with our food. For a moment we focused on dressing and condiments.

“Something else bugged me. In my initial canvas, I turned up a guy who claimed he saw Gamble and Lovette at the Speedway the night they disappeared.”

“Grady Winge.”

Galimore shook his head. “Eugene Fries. Fries swore he sold Gamble and Lovette corn dogs at a concession stand around eight p.m.”

“Winge said they left the Speedway at six.”

“Yeah.”

“Did anyone interview Fries?”

“Our FBI brethren said the guy was a crackhead and unreliable.”

“Did you share this with Rinaldi?”

Galimore nodded. “He agreed the contradiction was troublesome.”

“Did either of you follow up?”

“We tried, but by then Fries was in the wind. Then my life started falling apart. I got busted, went to jail, lost my job, my marriage imploded.”

Galimore took a forkful of lettuce, chewed.

“For a long time I was a very bitter man. Hated the cops, the FBI, my slut wife, life in general. The Gamble-Lovette file was like a festering wound. The only way I could move on was to put it behind me.”

“I’m confused. You’re revisiting the case now because your employer wants to know about the landfill John Doe? Or because you think the victim could be Cale Lovette?”

Galimore leaned forward, eyes intense. “Fuck my employer. Those dickwads locked me up so I couldn’t follow through on a case that mattered to me. I want to know why.”

“Did Rinaldi pursue the leads after you left the task force?”

“I don’t know.”

“Is it possible you’re being paranoid?”

“We’re talking the friggin’ FBI. You don’t think, with all their resources, they couldn’t have cracked this case if they wanted to?”

That same thought had occurred to me.

“But it wasn’t just the FBI and the cops.” Galimore pointed his fork at his chest. “I was also part of the problem.”

I let him continue.

“The Gambles were good people caught between bad alternatives. Either their daughter had turned her back on them, or she’d come to harm. Early in the investigation, they phoned me every day. Eventually I stopped picking up. I’m not proud of that.”

“So your interest is twofold and self-serving. You want to clear your conscience and at the same time stick it to the cops.”

“There’s something else. I got a call at my office earlier this week. The voice sounded male, but I can’t be sure. It was muffled by some sort of filter.”

“Uh-huh.”

“I’ll spare you the colorful verbiage. Bottom line, the caller threatened to take me down by exposing my past to the media unless I backed off on the Gamble-Lovette thing.”

“And you said?” I kept my voice neutral to hide my skepticism.

“Nothing. I hung up.”

“Did you trace the number?”

“The call was placed on a throwaway phone.”

“Your explanation?”

“The body in the landfill. The story in the paper.”

Galimore’s eyes again swept the restaurant.

“Someone out there is getting very, very nervous.”

“WHAT DO YOU PROPOSE?”

“I did some checking. Fries was in the wind for a while, reappeared about five years back, and now lives outside of Locust. He’s in his eighties, probably senile.”

Offended by Galimore’s broad-brush dismissal of the elderly, I snatched up the bill. He didn’t fight me.

“You intend to question him?” I asked curtly.

“Can’t hurt.”

While digging for my wallet, I spotted the page of code I’d torn from Slidell’s spiral. I withdrew both.

When Ellen left with my credit card, I unfolded and read Rinaldi’s notations.

“This mean anything to you?” I rotated the paper.

“What is it?”

“It’s from Rinaldi’s notes on the Gamble-Lovette investigation.”

Galimore looked at me. “Rinaldi was a stand-up guy,” he said.

“Yes.”

The emerald eyes held mine a very long moment. When they finally dropped to the paper, my cheeks were burning.

Jesus, Brennan.

“Wi-Fr. That’s probably Winge-Fries. Rinaldi was curious about the contradiction between their statements.”

I felt like an idiot. I should have seen that, but then I’d just learned of Fries.

“OTP. On-time performance?”

“Seriously?”

“Onetime programmable? You know, like with some electronic devices.”

“Onetime password? Maybe the rest is a password for something.”

“Could be.” Galimore slid the paper to my side of the table. “The rest, I’ve no idea. Unless FU stands for the obvious.”

My eyes were still rolling when Ellen returned. I signed the check, collected my card, and stood.

Galimore followed me out to the parking lot.

“You’ll let me know what Fries says?” I asked in parting.

“Shouldn’t this go two ways?” Slipping on aviator shades, though the day was cloudy. “You must have something on that John Doe by now.”

Oh yeah. The ricin. The confiscation and destruction of the body. The Rosphalt. No way I could share that information.

“I’ll talk to Dr. Larabee,” I said.

“I’m good at this, you know.” The aviators were fixed on my face. “I was a detective for ten years.”

I was weighing responses when my iPhone overrode the traffic sounds coming from East Boulevard.

Turning my back to Galimore, I moved a few paces off and clicked on.

“Yo.” Slidell was, as usual, chewing something. “This will be quick. Got two vics capped, another bleeding bad, probably not gonna make it. Looks like the gang boys are unhappy with each other.”

“I’m listening.” Sensing Galimore’s interest, I kept my response vague.

“Owen Poteat.” I waited while Slidell repositioned the foodstuff from his left to his right molars. “Born 1948, Faribault, Minnesota. Married, two daughters. Sold irrigation systems. Canned in ’ninety-five. Two years later the wife divorced him and moved the kids to St. Paul. Dead in 2007.”

“Why was Poteat at the airport?”

“Going to see his madre, who was checking out with cancer.”

“How’d he die?”

“Same as Mama.”

Failed job. Lost family. Dead mother. Though far from unique, Poteat’s story depressed the hell out of me.

“Looks like I’m out on Lovette-Gamble for now. With the bangers on the warpath, the chief’s reined us all in.”

“I understand.”

“I’ll jump back aboard when things cool down.”

“Focus on your investigation. I have another lead.”

“Oh yeah?”

Moving farther from Galimore, I told Slidell about Fries.

“Where’d you get that?”

“Cotton Galimore.”

“What the fuck?” Slidell exploded.

“Galimore participated in the original investigation. I thought he might have useful information. Which he did.”

“What did I tell you about that asswipe?”

“He claims he was framed.”

“And Charlie Manson claimed he was just running a day camp.” It was exactly the reaction I’d expected. “I don’t plan to date him,” I snapped.

“Yeah, well. Word is Galimore wasn’t exactly humping back in ’ninety-eight.”

“What does that mean?”

“That investigation went bust. Why’s that, I ask myself. I come up with no explanation makes sense. So I float a few questions.”

“To whom?”

“Cops been around the block.”

“They suggested that Galimore obstructed the work of the task force?”

“They inferred as much.”

I ignored Slidell’s misuse of the verb. “Why would he do that?”

“I ain’t his confessor.”

“Did they cite examples?”

“All I’m saying. Galimore’s a reptile. You chum with him, I’m out.”

Dead air.

“I’m guessing that was Skinny.”

Furious with Slidell, I hadn’t heard Galimore approach.

Shifting my face into neutral, I turned.

“He’s pissed that you’re talking to me.”

I said nothing.

“And ordering you to be a good girl and send me on my way.”

“He was reporting that he’d be tied up for a while.”

“So we’re on our own.”

“What?”

“Just you and me, kid.” Galimore winked. Ineffective, given the unnecessary lenses.

I dropped my phone into my purse and glanced up at him. As before, my stomach performed a wee flip.

I looked away. Quickly.

Two cats were tearing at something in a patch of grass by one corner of the restaurant. One was brown, the other white. Both had sinewy shadows overlying their ribs.

“I know you’re curious about Fries,” Galimore said.

I was.

“And Bogan.” Cale’s father.

“You’re heading to talk to them now?” I asked, still looking at the cats.

“I am.”

A zillion brain cells clamored that it was a bad idea. I waited for opposing views. Heard none.

“I drive,” I said.

North Carolina is loaded with little pockets that have managed to remain on the far side of rural. Fries had found one of them. Or someone had found it for him.

Following Galimore’s directions, I’d taken the outer beltway, then gone east on NC 24/27. Just before Locust, I’d cut north on 601, then made several turns, ending up on a stretch of gravel that hardly qualified as a road.

For several minutes we both assessed the scene.

If Galimore’s information was correct, Eugene Fries lived in the seediest trailer I’d ever seen. Its hitch rested on a boulder, keeping the thing more or less horizontal.

The trailer had no wheels, its flip-open windows were rusted shut, and a mound of debris rose halfway up the side facing us. BOLER was barely legible on its sun-fried aluminum.

A brand name? The owner’s name? A name given to the trailer itself? Whatever. I suspected Boler had been parked sometime this millennium and never again moved.

The trailer occupied most of a small clearing surrounded by hardwoods and pines. Along its perimeter I could see more trash heaps.

Behind and to the trailer’s right stood a shed constructed of haphazardly nailed two-by-fours. A dirt path circled from the trailer’s door around the hitch and boulder toward the shed. Straight shot to the can. Though gray and weathered, the outhouse seemed of more recent vintage than Boler.

To the trailer’s left loomed an ancient oak whose trunk had to be eight feet in diameter. Its gnarled limbs stretched over both trailer and shed. In its shadow, the earth was dark and bare.

Four feet up the oak’s trunk, I spotted two bolts. Clipped to each was a chain, now hanging slack. The stainless-steel links looked shiny and new.

My eyes traced the chains downward, then out across the bare ground. As I feared, each ended in a choke-collar clip.

“There might be dogs,” I said. “Big ones.”

“Yeah.” Galimore’s tone suggested he shared my apprehension.

As one, we lowered our windows.

And heard nothing. No birdsong. No barking. No WKKT Kat Country music twanging from a radio.

I sorted smells.

Damp leaves. Moist earth. An organic pungence that suggested garbage rotting in plastic.

Galimore spoke first. “You stay here. I’ll see if anyone’s home.”

Before I could object, he was out of the car. Couldn’t say I was unhappy. My mind was conjuring images of Rottweilers and Dobermans.

Galimore took two steps, then paused.

No slathering canines came charging forth.

Looking left and then right, Galimore headed across the ten feet of open space between the road and the trailer. A backward crooking of his right elbow told me he was armed.

Striding with purpose, he went directly to the trailer’s only door. His voice broke the stillness. “Mr. Fries. Are you in there?”

No response.

Galimore called out again, louder. “Eugene Fries? We’d like to talk to you.”

Nothing.

“We’re not going away, Mr. Fries.” Pounding the metal door with the heel of his left hand. “Best you come out.”

Still, no one answered.

Galimore stepped back to recheck his surroundings. And made the same observation that I had. The only path in the clearing was the one leading to the outhouse.

I watched Galimore circle the boulder and hitch, then disappear behind the trailer.

Time passed.

I checked my watch. Three-twenty-seven.

How long had Galimore been gone?

My eyes roved the clearing. The edge of the woods. The trailer.

Three-thirty-one.

I drummed anxious fingers on the wheel. Where the hell was he?

Three-thirty-four.

A yellow jacket buzzed the windshield, tentative. Landed. Crawled, antennae testing.

The tiniest breeze rustled the leaves overhead.

Three-thirty-six.

Thinking Galimore might have called to tell me to join him, I dug out my mobile. Checked for messages. Found none. Verified that the ringer was turned on. It was.

Impatient, I leaned toward the passenger-side floor and snatched up my purse.

When I straightened, the cold steel of a muzzle kissed my left temple.

ICY FEAR TRAVELED MY SPINE.

In the corner of my eye, I could see a dark figure standing outside the car. He or she held a shotgun tight to my skull.

Through the open window, I heard growling and thrashing. Terror froze me in place. I was in the middle of nowhere. Alone. At the wrong end of dogs and a gun.

Dear God, where was Galimore?

“State your business.”

The wheezy voice snapped me back. Low and deep. Male.

I swallowed. “Mr. Fries?”

“Who the hell’s asking?”

“Temperance Brennan.” Keep it simple. “I’m a friend of Wayne Gamble. Cindi’s brother.”

The growling gave way to snarling and scratching. The Mazda lurched.

“Down, goddammit!”

The earsplitting bellow sent a new wave of adrenaline flooding through me.

“Rocky! Rupert! Asses to the dirt!”

I heard the dull thud of a boot hitting flesh. A yelp.

My heart pounded in my chest. I didn’t dare turn my head. Who was this lunatic? Had he killed Galimore?

The gun muzzle prodded my skull. “You’re going to get out now. Real slow. Keeping your hands so’s I can see ’em.”

I heard the sound of a latch, then the door swung open.

Hands high, I thrust out my legs and stood.

Rocky and Rupert were the size of elk, black, with brown crescents above eyes that were fixed on me. Though a low growl rose from each massive throat, neither dog made a menacing move.

Their master looked about as old as a human can look. His skin was pale and tissue-paper thin over a prominent forehead, chin, and nose. His gaunt cheeks were covered with prickly white whiskers.

Though the day was muggy, the man wore wool pants, a long-sleeved flannel shirt, an orange hunting cap, and a windbreaker zipped to midchest.

His Winchester followed my every move. Its condition suggested an age equaling that of its owner.

The old man studied me with rheumy blue eyes, his gaze as steady as his grip on the gun.

“Who sent you here?”

“No one, sir.”

“Don’t you lie to me!”

As before, the vehemence of the outburst caused me to flinch.

“Move.” The gun barrel arced toward the far side of the clearing.

I held ground, knowing that entry into the trailer would limit my options.

“Move!”

“Mr. Fries, I—”

The muzzle of the Winchester jammed my sternum, knocking me backward. My spine struck the edge of the open car door. I cried out in pain.

The dogs shot to their feet.

The man lowered a hand, palm toward them.

The dogs sat.

“I said move.” Cold. Dangerous. “That way.”

Again he gestured with the gun.

Seeing no alternative, I began walking, as slowly as I felt my captor would allow. Behind me, I heard panting and the crunch of boots.

Desperate, I sorted options. I saw no phone or power lines. My mobile was in the car. I’d told no one where I was going.

My heart thudded faster.

I was marooned.

With a madman.

And Galimore nowhere in sight.

Outside the trailer, I stopped and tried again. “Mr. Fries. I mean you no harm.”

“You take one step, you get a load of shot in your head.”

The man circled me, then snapped his fingers at Rocky and Rupert. “Down!”

The dogs dropped to their bellies, mouths open, purple tongues dangling over yellowed teeth.

Keeping the Winchester cradled in one arm and pointed at my chest, the man bent, snatched up one chain, and clipped it to either Rocky or Rupert. He’d just secured the second chain when I noticed a flicker in the shadows beyond him.

Galimore struck like a ninja.

Firing around the trailer’s far end, he arm-wrapped the old man’s throat, dragged him clear of the dogs, and yanked the gun from his grasp. The hunting cap went airborne and landed in the dirt.

The dogs flew into a frenzy.

Terrified, I backpedaled as fast as I could.

Confused and enraged, Rocky and Rupert alternated between lunging at Galimore and me, muscles straining, saliva stringing from their gums and jowls.

“Call them off!” Galimore’s command barely carried over the furious barking.

A gagging sound rose from the old man’s throat.

“Sit them down or I shoot them!”

“Break.” Barely above a whisper.

Galimore released the old man. He doubled over, coughing and spitting.

The dogs grew even more frantic.

The old man straightened and tried again, louder, one trembling hand extended toward his animals. “Break.”

The dogs dropped to the ground, bodies tense, eyes on their master, clearly dubious about his directive.

“What’s your name?” Galimore demanded.

“Eugene Fries.” The old man’s Adam’s apple seemed ready to pop out of his throat. “This is my place. You got no right to bully me.”

“You were pointing a shotgun at the lady’s heart.”

“I weren’t gonna shoot no one.”

“You had me fooled. Her, too.”

No shit. The lady’s heart was still hammering against her ribs.

The old man leaned over and hawked an impressive gob.

Galimore cracked open the Winchester. Seeing it was unloaded, he snatched up the hunting cap and smacked it back and forth against one thigh.

“Got a couple of questions for you, Mr. Fries.” Galimore parked the cap on the bald old head. “Then we’re on our way.”

Fries said nothing as Galimore urged him in my direction, staying carefully outside the reach of the dogs.

Fries’s eyes rolled to me, then refocused on Galimore. Still on edge from the dogs and the gun, I let Galimore do the talking.

“We’re interested in two kids who went missing from the Charlotte Motor Speedway back in ’ninety-eight. Cale Lovette and Cindi Gamble. You know who I’m talking about?”

“I know what you’re talking about. Never knew either one of ’em.”

“You stated that you served Gamble and Lovette at a concession stand around eight p.m. the night they disappeared. Is that correct?”

Fries nodded.

“How did you know it was them?”

“The cops showed me pictures. Lovette was easy to remember because of the tats.”

“A lot of guys get inked.”

“OK. I knew of Lovette by reputation.”

“How’s that?”

“He was tight with a bunch of militia types. Word was they were real bad actors.”

Galimore thought about that. Then, “You know Grady Winge?”

“He’s an idiot.”

“According to Winge, Gamble and Lovette left the Speedway around six that night.”

“Like I said, Winge’s an idiot.”

“How could you be so certain about the time?”

“I was checking the clock.”

“Why was that?”

“A certain lady was coming to see me at nine.”

“She show up?”

“No. Look, I told all this to the cops back then. Nearly got my ass killed.”

“What does that mean?”

“Means I nearly got my ass killed.”

Galimore drilled Fries with a look.

“Right after I talk to the cops, I get a call. Guy says my life turns to shit if I don’t change my story.”

“Who was it?”

“If I’d known that, the prick would be fertilizing a patch of forest.”

“What did you do?”

“I told him to fuck off. A couple days later, my dog turned up dead on my porch.”

“Maybe it just died.”

“She sure as hell did. From a slug in her brain. Two days after that, my house burned down.”

“You think the caller actually followed through on his threats?” I was shocked.

“No.” Fries turned to me, contempt drawing his thin, flaky lips into a downward U. “It was Al Qaeda recruiting me to the cause.”

“Then what did you do?” Galimore asked.

“What the hell would you do? I quit my job and headed west. Few years back, my brother offered me this trailer. I figured enough time had passed, so I come home.”

“You’ve had years to think about it,” Galimore said. “You must have your suspicions.”

Fries didn’t answer for a very long time. When he did, his scraggly white brows were drawn low over his lids. “All’s I’ll say’s this. Word on the street was Lovette and his pals were trouble.”

“You’re talking about the Patriot Posse?”

Fries nodded. “Why would they threaten you?” I asked.

“What?” The brows shot up. “I look like a cop? How the hell would I know?”

I asked the same question I’d asked of the others.

“Mr. Fries, what do you think happened to Cindi Gamble and Cale Lovette?”

“I think Lovette and his asshole buddies either killed someone or blew something up. Then he and his girlie split.”

“Where the hell were you?” Buckling my seat belt, adrenaline still pumping through me.

“Checking a path behind the trailer. I didn’t want Fries coming up on us from the woods.”

“Good job.”

I spent the first few miles concentrating on the road. And my nerves.

Galimore seemed to understand. Or was focused on thoughts of his own.

We were on I-485 when I finally felt calm enough for conversation. Exhilarated, almost. Being rescued from a shotgun-toting maniac and his hounds will do that, I guess.

Nevertheless, I kept it professional.

We debated the significance of Fries’s story. Galimore thought the old geezer was probably exaggerating about the threats and harassment. I didn’t think so. His house either burned or it didn’t. Easy enough to check. Why lie?

We were still confused by the contradictory statements given back in ’ninety-eight. Had Lovette and Gamble left the Speedway at six, as Grady Winge reported? Or had they left later, as Eugene Fries insisted? Had one of the two been mistaken? Or had one intentionally lied? If so, which one? For what purpose? I was putting my money for accuracy on Fries.

We discussed theories concerning the fate of Gamble and Lovette. Currently there were five.

One: Cale and Cindi left voluntarily, either to join a militia elsewhere or to marry. This was the finding of the task force. I didn’t buy into the run-away-to-marry theory. Even a halfhearted investigation would have uncovered that.

Two: Cale killed Cindi, then went into hiding. Wayne Gamble thought his sister had dumped Lovette and feared for her life. Lynn Nolan suspected Lovette was abusing Cindi.

Three: Either Cale or Cindi was working undercover for the FBI. The Patriot Posse learned of this and killed them both. This was Slidell’s suggestion.

Four: Learning that Cale or Cindi had been compromised as a CI, the FBI had pulled and routed them both into witness protection. This had been my idea.

Five: Cale did something illegal with the Patriot Posse, then he and Cindi went into hiding. Eugene Fries had concocted this scenario based largely on rumor.

Still, I was bothered by the effectiveness of the disappearances. In all those years, not one phone call. Not a single slipup. That seemed to discredit the runaway theory.

Except for Owen Poteat. His sighting suggested a mistake on someone’s part.

I remembered my conversation with Slidell. Wondered if he’d learned anything more about Poteat other than that he was dead.

As we pulled into the lot at Bad Daddy’s, Galimore proposed dinner. Though tempted and hungry, I decided against it.

Galimore confused me. He was egotistical, infuriating, and of dubious moral character. But his actions proved he was a definite asset in a fight.

Bottom line: I found him smoldering hot.

Puh-leeze!

“No, thanks,” I said. “I have a skull waiting for me.”

Galimore looked at his watch. “It’s going on six.”

“I do some of my best work at night.”

Stupid!

Before Galimore could jump on the opening, I slammed it shut. “Alone.”

Winking, Galimore opened his door. “See you, Doc.”

In minutes I was at the MCME.

Bad mistake.

I was about to take a quadruple volley.

NOT A PATHOLOGIST OR RECEPTIONIST ON SITE. THE BOARD showed one death investigator present. Joe Hawkins.

My phone’s message light was blinking. After getting a Diet Coke from the kitchen, I put the thing on speaker and picked up a pen.

Special Agent Williams, sounding annoyed. It was urgent that I call him back. I jotted down the number.

Wayne Gamble, sounding anxious. He knew who was following him and intended to confront the guy.

Earl Byrne, the mushroom-shaped reporter from the Observer, sounding eager. He wanted to write a follow-up to his original article and wondered what was taking so long with an ID on the landfill John Doe. Delete.

Special Agent Williams. Delete.

Special Agent Williams. Delete.

Cotton Galimore, sounding, what? Flirtatious? The dinner offer was still on the table. Also, he intended to visit Craig Bogan in the morning. Did I want to come along?

I was scribbling Galimore’s number when a shadow fell across my desk. I looked up.

Hawkins was standing in my doorway, a half-dozen forceps in one hand.

“Hey, Joe.”

“That Cotton Galimore?” The scowl on Hawkins’s face would have frightened small children.

“Sorry?”

“Galimore.” He jabbed the forceps toward my phone. “You talking to him?”

“Mr. Galimore was involved in the search for Cale Lovette and Cindi Gamble back in ’ninety-eight.”

“You need to stay away from him.”

“Excuse me?”

“The man’s not to be trusted. You’ve got no business being anywhere near him.”

“How I choose to conduct an investigation is of no concern—”

“The man’s corrupt.”

“People change.”

“Not him.”

“That’s a bit rigid.”

“Galimore worked that case, all right. Wouldn’t surprise me if he took part in the cover-up folks are talking about. He’s probably jumping in now to protect his sorry ass.”

“Or he has a genuine interest in finding out what happened to his investigation?”

Hawkins was in full rant mode and in no mood to listen.

“Why the interest now after all these years? Could it be you’re getting to the truth and he wants to keep you close? Whatever Galimore’s motive, he’s acting solely in the interest of one person. Cotton Galimore.”

At that moment my phone rang.

Snorting his disgust, Hawkins turned and strode down the hall.

Without thinking, I picked up the receiver.

“Dr. Brennan. I’m glad I caught you.”

“I was just about to leave.” Not true. But I didn’t want another sermon. Especially from the likes of Special Agent Williams.

“I’ll keep it brief.”

“Why did you confiscate the landfill John Doe?” I decided to take the offensive.

“I explained the bureau’s reasoning to Dr. Larabee.”

“Ricin contamination.”

“Yes.”

“The ricin toxin isn’t contagious.”

“It was not my decision.”

“Was it your decision to cremate the body?”

“That was an unfortunate error.”

“What about my bone plugs?”

“What about them?”

“Were those samples also destroyed?”

“It is my understanding they’d been placed in the same body bag.”

“Could it be the bureau doesn’t want this man ID’ed?”

“That’s ridiculous.”

“Ted Raines turn up yet?”

Williams knew what I was asking. Did the bureau suspect that the landfill John Doe was the missing man from Atlanta?

“Not that I know of.”

“Odd coincidence. Raines working for the CDC. The John Doe showing evidence of ricin poisoning.”

“Indeed.” I heard what sounded like a ballpoint pen being clicked repeatedly. “I understand you talked to J. D. Danner.”

“Nice hair.”

“What did you tell him?”

“I could handle the groceries myself.”

A beat. Then, “I have been authorized to reveal certain sensitive information. Dr. Larabee already has it. He asked me to share it with you.”

I waited.

“In 1996 the Patriot Posse came to the attention of the FBI. The group was small and strictly local, but intel was that certain members were becoming radicalized, perhaps plotting acts of violence.”

“Which members?”

“That’s not relevant.”

“Danner?”

The pen. Click. Click. Click.

“Lovette?”

“No.”

“What was their alleged target?”

“This information is strictly confidential.”

“Oh. Wait. I’ll cancel my tweet.”

“According to our source, the posse was planning to contaminate the water supply of a nearby town.”

“Why?”

“Two gripes. The presence of a women’s clinic that provided abortions. The election of a black woman as mayor.”

A mélange of anger and disgust soured my stomach. I reached for the Diet Coke.

“At the time Cindi Gamble and Cale Lovette vanished, the posse was under surveillance,” Williams went on.

“You had someone inside?”

“I can’t tell you that.”

“Was it Lovette? Gamble?”

Williams ignored my questions. “Our intel also suggested that members of the group may have had ties to Eric Rudolph.”

“Did they?”

“We were unable to establish that fact with certainty.”

Click. Click. Click.

“The posse disbanded in 2002, but the bureau has continued to track some of its members.”

“J. D. Danner?”

“Danner now heads a much bigger organization called the Loyalist Movement. The group has several thousand followers throughout the Southeast.”

“Who are they?”

“Extremists who believe that the federal government deliberately murdered people at Ruby Ridge and Waco, and that door-to-door gun confiscation could begin any day. Their ideology is less white-supremacist than in the nineties, though many have now turned their venom toward followers of Islam. What holds the group together is anger at the government.”

I pictured the Tommy Bahamas, the sapphire ring, the RX-8. “Danner looked pretty flush.”

“The Loyalist Movement is well funded, and Danner skims a big chunk off the top. But make no mistake. Though he lives well, Danner is committed. The guy’s cunning as a fox and dangerous as typhoid.”

“Why are you sharing all of this now?”

“To keep you in the loop.”

“You want nothing in return.”

“Normal professional consideration.”

“Uh. Huh.”

With that, we disconnected.

Right, I thought. Who’s the fox?

After chugging the dregs of my Diet Coke, I got MCME 239-11 from the cooler.

The I-485 creek-bed skull was covered with moss and missing its entire face and most of the base. Copper staining, remnants of adipocere, tissue turned crumbly and waxy due to the hydrolysis of fats, and the presence of a shriveled mass of petrified brain told me I was probably looking at an old coffin burial. Without more contextual information, there was little I could say.

I was jotting a request to Hawkins for information about cemeteries in the vicinity of the creek bed, when my iPhone rang.

Katy.

I clicked on.

“Hey, babe. What are you up to?”

“Working late.” Her tone suggested a need to vent. “As usual.”

“Same here. Anything interesting?”

“Mind-blowing. I can hardly stay in my chair.”

“Oh?” I ignored the heavy sarcasm.

“Some guy’s in the running for most flagrant tax-fraud artist of the year. I get to plow through boxes and boxes of his papers.”

“Getting any good ideas?”

“With my salary? What would be the point of tax evasion?”

“Will you finish tonight?”

“I won’t finish until I’m ready for Medicare—one of the few systems this creep didn’t scam. Here’s a good one. He’d buy first-class airline tickets, then turn them in for a full refund and buy coach. But he’d submit the first-class receipts for tax purposes.”

“Not all that original.”

“OK. How about this one? He set up some sort of tax-free bank accounts for his kids’ education. But before they went to college, he drew out all the money. And never told Uncle Sam.”

“Isn’t the IRS able to track that sort of thing?”

“I’m probably missing something. It was complicated. And just one of the many cons el creepo got away with for years.”

I heard an intake of breath. Assuming Katy had more to say, I waited.

“Um. Have you talked to Ryan lately?”

“He’s pretty tied up with Lily.”

“How is she?”

“Eh.”

“How about Charlie Hunt?”

“He’s busy composing the world’s most brilliant closing argument.”

There was a moment of hesitation. Then she blurted, “I think he’s seeing this other lawyer in the office. They work late a lot. Together. And they just left. Together. All chatty and smiley.”

I felt a cool fizz in my chest.

“That’s fine. Charlie and I have no commitment to each other.”

“Have you heard from him?”

“No.”

A little beep told me another caller was trying to get through.

“Gotta go, sweetie.”

“Come by my cubicle sometime. Reach in and take my pulse.”

I was still chuckling when I clicked over to call waiting.

The sobs put a choke hold on my mirth.

“Tempe, I do hope it’s OK to call you.” Tremulous. “I didn’t know where else to turn.”

“I’m at the ME office, Summer.”

“I am super, super sorry. You have such a kind nature, and I fear I am abusing it.”

Thinking decidedly unkind thoughts, I began gathering my things.

“The wedding is now a complete disaster.”

When I tossed my purse onto the desk, my wallet popped out. The page with Rinaldi’s code stuck out like a bookmark.

“Pete’s ideas are completely worthless. He chose green napkins. Green? Can you imagine?”

“Mm.”

Desperate for distraction, I teased the paper free and spread it flat with one palm.

ME/SC 2X13G-529 OTP FU

Wi-Fr 6–8

“One of my bridesmaids is pregnant and can’t wear the dress. That’s Mary Gray. How could she do that to me?”

Galimore’s interpretation of the second line made sense. Rinaldi was interested in the contradiction in time line presented by Grady Winge and Eugene Fries. I focused on the first line.

“Sarah Elizabeth can’t get to Charlotte in time for the rehearsal. How can you have a wedding without a rehearsal?” Warbly.

Summer blew her nose loudly. “I don’t know why I’m surprised. Sarah Elizabeth has always been horribly thoughtless.”

My lower centers sat up.

What? Napkins? Pregnant? Rehearsal?

I stared at the alphanumeric string, only half-listening to Summer’s whining.

Mary Gray.

Sarah Elizabeth.

My mind strained, on the verge of a breakthrough.

“I swear.” More wet sniffling. “I just want to go to sleep and never wake up.”

I ran through my conversation with Katy.

IRS? Airline tickets? Bank account?

I dug deep.

Dots connected.

I knew what was needed to decipher Rinaldi’s note.

AFTER HUSTLING SUMMER OFF THE LINE WITH SOME VAGUE promise of support, I phoned Slidell. Got voice mail. Left a message. Urgent. Call me.

I tried Galimore. Voice mail. Same message.

Frustrated, I tossed my Diet Coke can into the recycling bin, grabbed my purse and laptop, and headed out.

Something was happening at the NASCAR Hall of Fame that night. I averaged about four miles a decade crossing uptown.

The bumper-to-bumper crunch changed my supper plan. No way I’d divert to Price’s for fried chicken. A salad made from produce in my refrigerator would have to do.

I was finally heading south on Providence Road when my iPhone sounded.

Galimore.

“I think I know what concerned Rinaldi,” I said.

“You’re breaking my heart.” Galimore sounded, what? Coy? “I thought you’d changed your mind about dinner.”

“What was Owen Poteat’s middle name?”

“I can check.”

“Poteat had two daughters, didn’t he?”

“That sounds right.”

“Get their names, too.”

“Yes, ma’am.”

Ahead, the light turned red. I stopped at the intersection. To my left, Providence Road cut south. To my right, it became Morehead Street.

“What about bank records? Tax records?” I asked.

“Whose?”

“Any account bearing Poteat’s name.”

“It would help to know the bank.”

The light went green. I proceeded straight on what was now called Queens Road. See. I wasn’t kidding.

“Start with Wells Fargo,” I said. “Work backward to 1998.”

“I’ve got sources who can do that. What are you thinking?”

“How long will it take?”

“The names, a matter of minutes. Tax and financial records, that’s tougher. Why aren’t you getting this through Slidell?”

“He’s either tied up or ignoring my calls.”

“Don’t expect Skinny to come around easily. The guy’s a champion grudge-holder.”

I turned in at Sharon Hall.

“I’m at my town house. I’ve got to go.”

“A quiet meal at home alone?”

“I’ll be dining with my cat.”

Birdie had other thoughts. Upon hearing me enter the kitchen, he retreated to a dining room chair.

I knew what was up. The feline coolness was a comment on the lateness of the hour. Normally Birdie eats at six.

I checked my phone, hoping for a message from Ryan or Charlie.

Neither had called.

Disappointed, I flipped on the TV. Two overly keen sports analysts were discussing potential lineups for the upcoming Coca-Cola 600. One predicted Sandy Stupak’s #59 Chevy would start near the front.

Hearing an unhappy meow, I went to the dining room, reached under the table, and stroked Birdie’s head.

“Sorry, Bird. I’ve been wicked busy.”

The cat didn’t budge.

“Cut me some slack. I’ve been to Concord and Locust all in one day. Slidell berated me. Hawkins lectured me. Ryan and Charlie have apparently dumped me. Katy and Summer both whined in my ear. Oh yeah. And an old coot held me at gunpoint with a Winchester.”

The cat remained obstinate.

After filling Birdie’s bowl, I went upstairs to shower. Then I threw on shortie-PJ bottoms and an old tee. No bra or panties. The freedom was exhilarating.

Back to the kitchen.

The tomato was flaccid, the cucumber slimy, the lettuce limp and black on the edges. So much for a salad.

Plan B. Something in a can.

I was rooting in the pantry when the back doorbell chimed. Wary, I peeked out.

Galimore was standing on the porch, face bathed in a yellow wash from the overhead bulb.

I closed my eyes. Tried to wish myself gone.

I heard the cadence of the evening news. The cat crunching Iams.

But gone where? What did I really wish for? To let Galimore in? To send him away?

Both Hawkins and Slidell disliked the man. Were they bitter that Galimore had made mistakes?

Had Galimore betrayed the badge? Were their concerns justified?

Had Galimore really taken a bribe? Or had there actually been a frame-up back in 1998? A frame-up in which police officers participated?

Had Galimore impeded the Gamble-Lovette investigation? Was he trying to do so now? Or was he genuinely interested in righting a wrong to the Gambles, which he saw as partly of his making?

Ryan wasn’t exactly burning up the phone line. Nor was Charlie Hunt.

Did I just need a booster? What was this peculiar attraction I felt for Galimore?

I sneaked another look.

Galimore was holding a flat square box. DONATOS was visible in big red letters.

My eyes drifted to the tomato and cuke. Which were now oozing liquid across the sideboard.

What the hell.

I crossed and unlocked the door.

Galimore smiled. Then his gaze dropped.

Too late, I remembered my lack of undies. One hand rose, pointlessly, to my chest.

Galimore’s eyes snapped up. “Totally loaded.” He raised the pizza. “Hope you like anchovies.”

I gestured toward the table. “Let me throw on some clothes.”

“Not on my account.” Galimore winked.

A flush rose up my neck.

Oh, yes, cowboy. On your account.

When I returned in jeans, a sweatshirt chastely concealing my bosom, the table was set. A small bottle of San Pellegrino sat beside each wineglass.

Out of courtesy to me? Or was Galimore also a nondrinker. Given his past, it seemed likely.

Before taking my place, I muted the TV.

“What did you learn?” I started off, wanting to set the tone.

“Not yet.” Galimore slid an overloaded slice of pizza onto my plate. “First, we eat. And enjoy the lost art of conversation.”

In the course of three helpings, I learned that Galimore lived alone uptown, had four brothers, hated processed food, and besides auto racing, enjoyed football and opera.

He learned that I had one daughter and a cat. And that the latter was inordinately fond of pizza.

Finally Galimore bunched his napkin and leaned back in his chair.

“I know where you’re going,” he said. “And I think you’re dead-on.”

“What was Owen Poteat’s middle name?”

“Timothy.”

“And his daughters?”

“Mary Ellen and Sarah Caroline.”

“Yes!” I performed the “raise the roof” pantomime with both hands.

“What I can’t figure is how you got that.”

“First, I spoke to my daughter earlier this evening. She talked about a man who opened tax-advantaged savings plans for his kids’ educations.

“Second, I have a friend who is getting married. Right after my conversation with Katy, she phoned to complain about her bridesmaids.”

“Condolences.”

“Thanks. Both bridesmaids go by double first names.”

“True maidens of Dixie.”

“As I listened to Summer, I was studying Rinaldi’s code.”

“Summer is the lovely bride-to-be?”

“Do you want to hear this?”

Galimore raised apologetic palms.

“The plan Katy described is named after Section 529 of the Internal Revenue Code. 529s are investment vehicles designed to encourage saving for the future college expenses of designated beneficiaries.”

“OK. How do they work?”

“A donor puts money in and can take it any time he or she wants. The main benefits are that the principal grows tax-deferred, and that distributions for higher-education costs are exempt from federal tax.”

Pete and I had considered a 529 when Katy was small. Never followed through.

“A side bennie is that the assets in a 529 plan are not counte