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Chapter 6

I SPENT THE NEXT MORNING SEPARATING FLESH INTO FOUR INDI viduals. Case number 432 came from a burned segment of fuselage that lay in a valley north of the main crash site. Inside the body bag I found one relatively intact corpse missing the top of the skull and the lower arms. The bag also contained a partial head and a complete right arm with a portion of mandible embedded in the triceps muscle. Everything was congealed into a single charred mass.

I determined that the corpse was that of a black female in her early twenties who stood five feet seven at the time of death. Her X rays showed healed fractures of the right humerus and scapula. I classified number 432 as fragmented human remains, recorded my observations, and sent the body on to odontology.

The partial head, a white male in his late teens, became number 432A, and was also forwarded for dental analysis. The jaw fragment belonged to someone older than number 432A, probably a female, and went on to the dentists as number 432C. The state of bone development suggested that the unrelated arm came from an adult over twenty. I calculated upper and lower limits for stature, but was unable to determine gender since all hand and arm bone measurements fell into the overlap range for males and females. I sent the arm to the fingerprint section as case number 432D.

It was twelve-fifteen when I looked at my watch. I had to hurry.

* * *

I spotted Ryan through a small window in the morgue's back door. He was sitting on the steps, one long leg outstretched, the other raised to support an elbow as he spoke into a cell phone. Opening the door, I could hear that his words were English, his tone agitated, and I suspected the business was other than official.

“Well, that's the way it's going to be.”

He turned a shoulder when he saw me, and his answers grew terse.

“Do what you want, Danielle.”

I waited until he had disconnected, then joined him on the porch.

“Sorry I'm late.”

“No problemo.”

He flipped the cover and slid the phone into his pocket, his movements stiff and jerky.

“Problems on the home front?”

“What's your pleasure for lunch? Fish or fowl?”

“Nice dodge,” I said, smiling. “And about as subtle as a full court press.”

“The home front is not your concern. Subtle enough?”

Though my mouth opened, no words emerged.

“It's just a personal disagreement.”

“Have a lovers' spat with the Archbishop of Canterbury for all I care, just don't treat me to the performance.” Heat flamed my cheeks.

“Since when are you curious about my love life?”

“I couldn't care less about your love life,” I snapped.

“Thus the inquisition.”


“Let's forget it.” Ryan reached out, but I stepped back.

“You did ask me to meet you here.”

“Look, this investigation has us both on edge.”

“But I don't take cheap shots at you.”

“What I don't need is more browbeating,” he said, lowering the shades from the top of his head.

“Browbeating?” I exploded.

Ryan repeated his question. “Fish or fowl?”

“Go fowl your own fish.”

I whirled and lunged for the doorknob, my face burning with anger. Or was it humiliation? Or hurt?

Inside, I slammed then leaned against the door. From the lot I heard an engine, then the squeal of brakes as a truck arrived with twenty more cases. Rolling my head, I saw Ryan kick a heel at the ground, then cross to his rental car.

Why had he made me so furious? I'd spent a lot of time thinking of the man during his months undercover. But distancing myself from Ryan had become so routine, I'd never considered the possibility that someone else might enter his life. Was that now the case? While I wanted to know, I sure as hell wasn't going to ask.

I turned back to find Larke Tyrell regarding me intently.

“You need some R and R.”

“I'm taking two hours this afternoon.” I'd requested the break so Ryan and I could search the area where I'd found the foot. Now I'd have to do it alone.

“Sandwich?” Larke tilted his chin toward the staff lounge.


Minutes later we were seated at one of the folding tables.

“Squashed subs and pulverized chips,” he said.

“My usual order.”

“How's LaManche?” Larke had selected what looked like tuna on wheat.

“Back to his usual cantankerous self.”

Being the director of the medico-legal unit, Pierre LaManche was Larke Tyrell's counterpart at the lab in Montreal. My two bosses had known each other for years through membership in the National Association of Medical Examiners and the American Academy of Forensic Sciences. LaManche had suffered a heart attack the previous spring but was fully recovered and back to work.

“Mighty glad to hear that.”

As we peeled cellophane and popped sodas, I remembered the ME's first appearance at the site.

“Can I ask you something?”

“Sure.” He watched me carefully, his eyes chestnut in the sunlight angling down from an overhead window.

“Jesus, Larke, I'm fine, so quit with the stress assessment. Lieutenant-Detective Ryan just happens to be a horse's ass.”

“Noted. You sleeping O.K.?”

“Like Custer after Little Bighorn.” I avoided the impulse to roll my eyes.

“What's your question?”

“When you and the lieutenant governor arrived last week, where did the chopper land?”

I upended my chip bag and poured fragments into my hand.

“There's a house a spit west of the crash site. The pilot liked the lay of the land so that's where he put us down.”

“There's a landing strip?”

“Hell, no, just a small clearing. I thought Davenport was gonna soil his Calvin Kleins, he was so scared.” Larke chuckled. “It was like a scene out of M*A*S*H. Triggs kept insisting we head back out, and the pilot kept saying, ‘Yes, sir, yes, sir,’ then put that bird exactly where he wanted.”

I palmed the chips into my mouth.

“Then we just worked our way toward the site. I'd say it was maybe a quarter mile.”

“It's a house?”

“An old cabin or something. I didn't pay much attention.”

“Did you see a road?”

He shook his head. “Why the questions?”

I told him about the foot.

“I didn't notice a cemetery, but there's no harm poking around out there. You sure these were coyotes?”


“Be safe; take a radio and a can of Mace.”

“Do coyotes hunt during the day?”

“Coyotes hunt whenever they feel like it.”


North Carolina's official tree is the longleaf pine, its official flower the dogwood. The shad boat, the saltwater bass, and the Eastern box turtle have been similarly honored. The state boasts wild ponies on the Shackleford Banks and the nation's highest suspension bridge at Grandfather Mountain. The Old North State flows from the peaks of the southern Appalachians in the west, across the hills of the piedmont, to the marshlands, beaches, and barrier islands along its eastern shore. It is Mount Mitchell and the Outer Banks. Blowing Rock and Cape Fear. Linville Gorge and Bald Head Island.

North Carolina's geography splits its residents along ideological lines. The high-country crowd plays recreational roulette mountain biking, hang gliding, whitewater kayaking, rock climbing, and, in winter, downhill skiing and snowboarding. The less reckless go in for golf, antiques, bluegrass music, and the viewing of foliage.

Fans of the low country favor salt air, warm sand, ocean fishing, and Atlantic breakers. Temperatures are mild. The locals have never owned mittens or snow tires. Except for the occasional shark or renegade gator, the fauna is nonthreatening. Golf, of course, also permeates the low country.

While I am awed by the beauty of foaming rivers, cascading falls, and towering trees, my allegiance has always been to the sea. I prefer ecozones where shorts and sundresses suffice, and only one layer is needed. Give me a swimsuit catalog and forget Eddie Bauer. All things considered, I'd rather be at the beach.

These thoughts drifted through my mind as I circled the debris field. The day was clear but breezy, the smell of decay less apparent. Though victim recovery was well along, and fewer bodies littered the ground, the big picture looked relatively unchanged. Bio-suited figures still wandered about and crawled through the wreckage, though some now wore caps marked FBI.

I found Larke's opening and cut into the woods. Though the high-altitude sunlight was warm, the temperature dropped appreciably when I moved into shadow. I followed the trail I'd taken the week before, now and then stopping to listen. Branches tapped and scraped, and dead leaves tumbled across the ground with soft ticking sounds. Overhead, a woodpecker drummed a staccato tattoo, paused, repeated itself.

I was wearing a bright yellow jacket, wanting to surprise no one, and hoping the Tommy Hilfiger colors would suggest avoidance to the coyote mind. If not, I'd zap the furry buggers. Inside my pocket I clutched a small can of Mace.

At the fallen sourwood, I dropped to one knee and scanned the forest floor. Then I rose and looked around. Other than my Louisville Slugger branch, there was no hint of my canid adventure.

I continued along the subtle passageway. The ground was slightly concave, and I had to take care not to turn an ankle on a rock hidden beneath leaves. Though lower than the surrounding scrub, the vegetation at times rose almost to my knees.

I kept my eyes roving, watching for critters or signs of interment. Larke's house meant human settlement, and I knew that old farmsteads often included family burials. One summer I'd directed a dig at the top of Chimney Rock. Intending to excavate only the cabin, we'd uncovered a tiny graveyard, unlisted on any document. Also timber rattlers and water moccasins, I suddenly remembered.

I pressed on through cool, dark shade, thorns and twigs tugging my clothes and insects dive-bombing my face. Gusts sent shadows dancing, changing shape around me. Then, without warning, the trees gave way to a small clearing. As I emerged into sunlight a white-tailed deer raised its head, stared, then disappeared.

Ahead sat a house, its back snugged to a sheer rock cliff that rose straight up for several hundred feet. The structure had a thick-walled foundation, dormer windows, and a sloping roof with wide eaves. A covered porch hid the front, and an odd stone wall peeked from behind the left side.

I waved. Waited. Called out. Waved again.

No challenging voice or bark. Nor any sound of welcome.

I shouted again, hoping a Deliverance redneck did not have me in his crosshairs.


Banjos dueling in my head, I started across the meadow. Though it was blindingly bright away from the trees, I left my sunglasses in my pocket. In addition to your run-of-the-mill holler rustics, these mountains sheltered white-supremacist, paramilitary types. Strangers were not encouraged to visit.

I could see that the grounds largely had been taken back by nature. What had once been lawn or garden was now overgrown with stunted white alder, sourwood, Carolina silverbell, and numerous shrubs I didn't recognize. Beyond the bushes, big-tooth aspen, Fraser magnolia, poplar, maple, oak, beech, and Eastern white pine mixed with unfamiliar trees. Kudzu draped everything in tangled webs of green.

As I walked to the front steps, goose bumps spread along my arms and a sense of uneasiness wrapped around me like a cold, wet shawl. A feeling of menace hung over the place. Was it born of the dark, weathered wood, the blind, boarded windows, or the jungle of vegetation that kept the dwelling in perpetual gloom?

“Hello?” My heartbeat quickened.

Still no dogs or mountain men.

One look told me the house had not been thrown up quickly. Or recently. The construction was as solid as London's Newgate prison. Though I doubted George Dance drew the plans, this designer shared the prison architect's distrust of portals on to the world. There were no expanses of glass to maximize the mountain view. No skylights. No widow's walks. Constructed of rock and thick, unstained planking, the place had clearly been built for function. I couldn't tell if it had last been visited at the end of the summer or at the end of the Great Depression.

Or if someone was inside now, watching my movements through a crack or gun hole.

“Is anyone home?”


I climbed to the porch and knocked.


No sounds of movement.

Sidestepping to a window, I brought my eyes close to the shutters. Heavy, dark material hid the interior. I twisted and turned my head, angling for a view, until the feathery brush of a spider sent me jumping backward.

I descended the steps, circled the house on an overgrown flagstone path, and stepped through an arch into a gloomy little courtyard. The enclosure was surrounded by eight-foot stone walls overhung by lilac bushes, their leaves dark against the greens and yellows of the forest beyond. Except for moss, nothing grew on the hard-packed, moist ground. The dank little quadrangle seemed completely incapable of sustaining life.

I turned my gaze back to the house. A crow circled and settled on a nearby branch, a small black silhouette against brilliant blue. The bird cawed twice, clicked its beak, then lowered its head in my direction.

“Tell the mistress I stopped by,” I said with more self-assurance than I felt.

The crow regarded me briefly, then flapped into the air.

Turning, I caught a flicker, like sunlight glinting off broken glass. I froze. Had I seen movement in an upstairs window? I waited a full minute. Nothing stirred.

The yard had only one entrance, so I retraced my steps and surveyed the far side of the property. Brush filled the space between forest and house, ending in a jungle of dead hollyhocks crowding the foundation. I walked the area, but saw no evidence of burials, disturbed or intact. My only discovery was a broken metal bar.

Frustrated, I returned to the front porch, inserted the bar between the shutters, and pried gently. There was no give. I applied more pressure, curious, but not wanting to cause damage. The wood was solid and would not budge.

I looked at my watch. Two forty-five. This was useless. And stupid, if the property wasn't abandoned. If proprietors existed, they were away, or wanted it to seem so. I was tired, sweaty, and itchy from thousands of tiny scratches.

And I had to admit, the place creeped me out. Though I knew my reaction was irrational, I felt a sense of evil pervading the grounds. Deciding to make inquiries in town, I dropped the bar and headed back to the crash site.

Driving toward the morgue, I pondered the mysterious lodge. Who had built it? Why? What was it about the place that made me so uneasy?


@by txiuqw4

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