“NICE SWING. Y OU LOOKED LIKE SAMMY SOSA.”
“The goddamn thing was getting ready to go for my throat!” It was almost a shriek.
“They don't attack live people. They were only trying to drive you away from their dinner.”
“Did one of them explain that to you personally?”
Andrew Ryan plucked a leaf from my hair.
But Ryan was underground somewhere in Quebec.
“What in hell are you doing here?” Slightly calmer.
“Is that a thank-you, Goldilocks? Maybe Riding Hood would be more appropriate, given the circumstances.”
“Thanks,” I mumbled, brushing bangs off my forehead. Though I was grateful for the intervention, I preferred not to cast it as a rescue.
He reached for my hair again, and I parried the move. As usual when our paths crossed, I was not looking my best.
“I'm scraping up quarts of brain matter, and a wolf pack was just sizing me up as a candidate for joining the dismembered, and you find fault with my styling gel?”
“Is there a reason you're out here by yourself?”
His paternalism irritated me. “Is there a reason you're here at all?”
The lines in his face tensed. Such nice lines, each placed exactly where it ought to be.
“Bertrand was on the plane.”
The passenger list. Bertrand. It was a common name, so I'd never thought of Ryan's partner.
“He was escorting a prisoner.” Ryan drew air through his nostrils, exhaled. “They were connecting to an Air Canada flight at Dulles.”
“Oh, God. Oh, my God. I am so sorry.”
We stood mute, unsure what to say, until the silence was pierced by an eerie, quavering sound, followed by a series of high-pitched yips. Were our friends challenging us to a rematch?
“We'd better get back,” Ryan said.
“No argument here.”
Ryan unzipped his jumpsuit, took a flashlight from his belt, flicked the switch, and raised it to shoulder level.
“Wait. Let me have the light.”
He handed it to me, and I crossed to the spot where I'd first seen the wolf.
“If you're hunting mushrooms, this is not a good time.”
He stopped when he saw what lay on the ground.
The foot looked macabre in the yellow beam, its flesh ending in a crushed mass just above the ankle. Shadows danced in and out of the grooves and pits left by carnivore teeth.
Pulling fresh gloves from my pocket, I snapped one on and picked up the foot. Then I marked the spot with another glove and secured it with a rock.
“Shouldn't it be mapped?”
“We can't tell where the pack found this. Besides, if we leave the thing here it's puppy chow.”
“You're the boss.”
I followed Ryan out of the woods, holding the foot as far from my body as possible.
When we got back to the command center, Ryan went into the NTSB trailer and I took my find to the temporary morgue. After hearing my explanation of its provenance and why I'd collected it, the intake team assigned it a number, bagged it, and sent it to one of the refrigerated trucks. I rejoined the recovery operation.
* * *
Two hours later Earl found me and delivered a note: Report to the morgue. 7 A.M. LT.
He produced an address and told me I was done for the day. No amount of argument would change his mind.
I went to decontamination, showered under scalding water for as long as I could take it, and put on fresh clothes. I left the trailer with Christmas-bow skin, but at least the smell was gone.
Clomping down the steps, as exhausted as I'd ever been, I noticed Ryan leaning against a bubble-top cruiser ten feet up the access road, talking with Lucy Crowe.
“You look beat,” said Crowe when I drew near.
“I'm good,” I said. “Earl pulled me in.”
“How's it going out there?”
I felt like a midget talking to them. Both Ryan and Crowe topped six feet, though she had him beat in shoulder breadth. He looked like a point guard; she was a power forward.
Not in a mood to chat, I asked Crowe for directions and excused myself.
“Hold it, Brennan.” I allowed Ryan to catch up, then gave him a “don't bring it up” look. I did not want to discuss wolves.
As we walked, I thought of Jean Bertrand, with his designer jackets, matching ties, and earnest face. Bertrand always gave the impression he was trying too hard, listening too closely, afraid to miss an important clue or nuance. I could hear him, flipping from French to English in his own personal brand of Franglais, laughing at his own jokes, unaware that others weren't.
I remembered the first time I'd met Bertrand. Shortly after arriving in Montreal, I'd gone to a Christmas party hosted by the SQ homicide unit. Bertrand was there, mildly drunk, and newly partnered with Andrew Ryan. The hotshot detective was already something of a legend, and Bertrand's veneration flowed undisguised. By evening's end the hero worship had grown embarrassing for everyone. Especially Ryan.
“How old was he?” I voiced the question without thinking.
“Thirty-seven.” Ryan was right there in the middle of my thoughts. “Jesus.”
We reached the county road and headed uphill.
“Whom was he escorting?”
“A guy named Rémi Petricelli, known to his friends as Pepper.”
I knew the name. Petricelli was a bigwig in the Quebec Hells Angels, reputed to have ties to organized crime. The Canadian and American governments had been investigating him for years.
“What was Pepper doing in Georgia?”
“About two months ago a small-time trafficker named Jacques Fontana ended up charcoal in a Subaru Outback. When every road led to his door, Pepper decided to sample the hospitality of his brothers in Dixie. Long story short, Pepper was spotted in a bar in Atlanta, the locals nailed him, and last week Georgia agreed to extradite. Bertrand was hauling his ass back to Quebec.”
We'd arrived at my car. Across at the overlook, a spotlighted man held a mike while an assistant powdered his face.
“Which brings more players to the table,” Ryan went on, his voice leaden.
“Pepper had juice. If he'd decided to deal, a lot of his friends would be in deep-dish shit.”
“I'm not following.”
“Some powerful people probably wanted Pepper dead.”
“Enough to kill eighty-seven other people?”
“Without a hitch in their breathing.”
“But that plane was full of kids.”
“These guys aren't the Jesuits.”
I was too shocked to respond.
Seeing my face, Ryan switched tacks. “Hungry?”
“I need to sleep.”
“You need to eat.”
“I'll stop for a burger,” I lied.
Ryan stepped back. I unlocked my door and drove off, too tired and heartsick to say good night.
* * *
Since every room in the area had been grabbed by the press and NTSB, I was booked into a small B & B on the outskirts of Bryson City. It took several wrong turns and two inquiries to find it.
True to its name, High Ridge House sat atop a summit at the end of a long, narrow lane. It was a two-story white farmhouse with intricate woodwork on the doors and windows, and on the beams, banisters, and railings of a wide veranda wrapping around the front and sides. In the porch light I could see wooden rockers, wicker planters, ferns. Very Victorian.
I added my car to a half dozen others in a postage-stamp lot to the left of the house, and followed a flagstone path flanked by metal lawn chairs. Bells jangled as I opened the front door. Inside, the house smelled of wood polish, Pine-Sol, and simmering lamb.
Irish stew is perhaps my favorite dish. As usual, it brought Gran to mind. Twice in two days? Maybe the old girl was looking down.
In moments a woman appeared. She was middle-aged, about five feet tall, with no makeup and thick gray hair pulled into an odd sausage roll on the top of her head. She wore a long denim skirt and a red sweatshirt with Praise the Lord scrolled across her chest.
Before I could speak, the woman embraced me. Surprised, I stood angled down with hands out, trying not to strike her with my overnighter or laptop.
After a decade the woman stepped back and gazed at me with the intensity of a player receiving serve at Wimbledon.
“It's the Lord's work you're doing for these poor dead children.”
“Precious in the sight of the Lord is the death of his saints. He tells us that in the Book of Psalms.”
“I'm Ruby McCready, and I'm honored to have you at High Ridge House. I intend to look after each and every one of you.”
I wondered who else was quartered there, but said nothing. I would find out soon enough.
“Thank you, Ruby.”
“Let me take that.” She reached for my bag. “I'll show you to your room.”
My hostess led me past a parlor and dining room, up a carved wooden staircase, and down a corridor with closed doors on either side, each bearing a small hand-painted plaque. We made a ninetydegree turn at the far end of the hall and stopped in front of a single door. Its nameplate said Magnolia.
“Since you're the only lady, I put you in Magnolia.” Though we were alone, Ruby's voice had become a whisper, her tone conspiratorial. “It's the only one with its own WC. I reckoned you'd appreciate the privacy.”
WC? Where in the world did they still refer to bathrooms as water closets?
Ruby followed me in, placed my satchel on the bed, and began fluffing pillows and lowering shades like a bellman at the Ritz.
The fabric and wallpaper explained the floral appellation. The window was draped, the tables skirted, and ruffles adorned every edge in the room. The maple rocker and bed were stacked with pillows, and a million figurines filled a glass-fronted cabinet. On top sat ceramic renderings of Little Orphan Annie and her dog, Sandy, Shirley Temple dressed as Heidi, and a collie I assumed to be Lassie.
My taste in home furnishings tends toward the simple. Though I have never cared for the starkness of modern, give me Shaker or Hepplewhite and I am happy. Surround me with clutter and I start to get itchy.
“It's lovely,” I said.
“I'll leave you to yourself now. Dinner's at six, so you missed that, but I left stew to simmerin'. Would you like a bowl?”
“No, thank you. I'm going to turn in.”
“Have you eaten dinner?”
“I'm not very hungr—”
“Look at you, you're thin as the broth at a homeless shelter. You can't go with nothin' on your stomach.”
Why was everyone so concerned with my diet?
“I'll bring up a tray.”
“Thank you, Ruby.”
“I don't need thankin'. One last thing. We've got no locks here at High Ridge House, so you come and go as you like.”
Though I'd showered at the site, I unpacked my few things and took a long, hot bath. Like rape victims, those who clean up after mass fatalities often overbathe, driven by a need to purge mind and body.
I came out of the bathroom to stew, brown bread, and a mug of milk. My cell phone rang as I was poking at a turnip. Fearing the messaging service would kick in, I lunged for my purse, dumped its contents onto the bed, and fished through hair spray, wallet, passport, organizer, sunglasses, keys, and makeup. I finally found the phone and clicked on, praying the caller was Katy.
It was. My daughter's voice triggered such emotion in me, I had to struggle to keep my voice steady.
Though evasive about her whereabouts, she sounded happy and healthy. I gave her the number at High Ridge House. She told me she was with a friend and would return to Charlottesville on Sunday night. I didn't request, nor did she offer, the gender specifics of her pal.
The soap and water, combined with the long-awaited call from my daughter, had done the trick. Almost giddy with relief, I was suddenly famished. I devoured Ruby's stew, set my travel alarm, and fell into bed.
Maybe the House of Chintz wouldn't be so bad.
The next morning I rose at six, put on clean khakis, brushed my teeth, dabbed on blush, and drew my hair up under a Charlotte Hornets' cap. Good enough. I headed downstairs, intending to ask Ruby about laundry arrangements.
Andrew Ryan occupied a bench at a long pine table in the dining room. I took a chair opposite, returned Ruby's cheery “Good morning,” and waited while she poured coffee. When the kitchen door swung closed behind her, I spoke.
“What are you doing here?”
“Is that all you ever say to me?”
“The sheriff recommended this place.”
“Above all others.”
“It's nice,” he said, gesturing around the room. “Loving.” He raised his mug to a message above our heads: Jesus Is Love had been burned into knotty pine and varnished for posterity.
“How did you know I was here?”
“Cynicism causes wrinkles.”
“It doesn't. Who told you?”
“What's wrong with the Comfort Inn?”
“Who else is here?”
“There are a couple of NTSB boys upstairs and a special agent from the FBI. What makes them special?”
I ignored that.
“I'm looking forward to guy-bonding in the bathroom. Two others are on the main floor, and I hear there are some journalists squeezed into a bonus room in the basement.”
“How did you get a room here?”
The Viking blues went little-boy innocent. “Must have been lucky timing. Or maybe Crowe has pull.”
“Don't even think about using my bathroom.”
Ruby arrived with ham, eggs, fried potatoes, and toast. Though my normal routine is cereal and coffee, I dug in like a recruit at boot camp.
Ryan and I ate in silence while I did some mental sorting. His presence annoyed me, but why? Was it his supreme self-confidence? His custodial attitude? His invasion of my turf? The fact that less than a year ago he'd prioritized the job over me and disappeared from my life? Or the fact that he'd reappeared exactly when I'd needed help?
As I reached for toast I realized he'd said nothing about his stint undercover. Fair enough. Let him bring it up.
He passed it.
Ryan had gotten me out of a nasty spot.
I spread blackberry preserves thicker than lava.
The wolves weren't Ryan's fault. Nor was the crash.
Ruby poured refills.
And the man has just lost his partner, for God's sake.
Compassion overrode irritation.
“Thanks for your help with the wolf thing.”
“They weren't wolves.”
“What?” Irritation boomeranged back.
“They weren't wolves.”
“I suppose it was a pack of cocker spaniels.”
“There are no wolves in North Carolina.”
“Crowe's deputy talked about wolves.”
“The guy probably wouldn't know a wombat from a caribou.”
“Wolves have been reintroduced into North Carolina.” I was sure I'd read that somewhere.
“Those are red wolves and they're on a reserve down east, not in the mountains.”
“I suppose you're an expert on North Carolina wildlife.”
“How did they hold their tails?”
“Did the animals hold their tails up or down?”
I had to think.
“A wolf holds its tail straight out. A coyote keeps its tail low, raises it to horizontal when threatening.”
I pictured the animal sniffing, then raising its tail and locking me into its gaze.
“You're telling me those were coyotes?”
“Or wild dogs.”
“There are coyotes in Appalachia?”
“There are coyotes all over North America.”
“So what?” I made a mental vow to check.
“So nothing. I just thought you might want to know.”
“It was still terrifying.”
“Damn right. But it's not the worst thing you've ever been through.”
Ryan was right. Though frightening, the coyote incident was not my worst experience. But the days that followed were contenders. I spent every waking moment up to my elbows in shattered flesh, separating commingled remains and reassociating body parts. As part of a team of pathologists, dentists, and other anthropologists, I determined age, sex, race, and height, analyzed X rays, compared antemortem and postmortem skeletal features, and interpreted injury patterns. It was a gruesome task, made even grimmer by the youth of most of those being analyzed.
For many, the stress was too much. Some hung in, running on the rim until tremors, tears, or unbearable nightmares finally won out. These were the ones who would require extensive counseling. Others simply packed up and slipped back home.
But for most, the mind adjusted and the unthinkable became the ordinary. We mentally detached and did what needed doing. Each night as I lay in bed, lonely and exhausted, I was comforted by the day's progress. I thought of the families, and assured myself that the system was working. We would grant them closure of sorts.
Then specimen number 387 arrived at my station.