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Chapter 7

RYAN WAS LYING IN WAIT WHEN I ARRIVED AT H IGH R IDGE House shortly after nine. I didn't see him until he spoke.

“Looks like we've got an explosion.”

I paused, one hand on the screen door handle.

“Not now, Ryan.”

“Jackson's going to make a statement tomorrow.”

I turned in the direction of the porch swing. Ryan had one heel on the banister and was pushing himself slowly back and forth. When he drew on his cigarette, a tiny red glow lighted his face.

“It's certain?”

“As Madonna's lost virginity.”

I hesitated, wanting news of the investigation, but wary of the bearer.

“It's been a sincerely fucked-up day, Brennan. I apologize for any misbehavior.”

Though I'd had little time to dwell on it, the noontime confrontation had led me to a decision. I was ending the circle of disaster that had been my relationship with Ryan. From now on our interactions would be strictly professional.

“Tell me.”

Ryan patted the swing.

I crossed to him but remained standing.

“Why an explosion?”


“If this is a come-on, you can—”

“There's cratering and fiber penetration.”

In the half-light of the overhead bulb Ryan's face looked drained of life. He inhaled deeply, then flicked his butt into Ruby's ferns. I watched sparks comet through the dark, imagining the plunge of Air TransSouth 228.

“Do you want to hear this?”

Placing my pack between us, I dropped onto the swing.

“What's cratering?”

“Cratering is caused when a solid or liquid is suddenly converted to a gas.”

“As in a detonation.”

“Yes. An explosion rockets the temperature thousands of degrees and sends out shock waves that create a gas wash effect on metal surfaces. That's how the explosives group experts described it. They showed slides at today's briefing. It looks kind of like an orange peel.”

“They're finding cratering?”

“They've spotted it on fragments. Rolled edges, too, which is another indicator.”

He gave the swing a gentle push.

“What's fiber penetration?”

“They're seeing the fibers of some materials driven through other, undamaged materials. All under high-powered microscopes, of course. They're also finding heat fractures and flash melting at the ends of some fibers.”

Another oscillation, and I tasted the Greek salad I'd wolfed down after leaving the morgue.

“Don't rock the swing.”

“Some of the blow-up photos are amazing.”

I zipped my jacket and tucked my hands into the pockets. Though the days were still warm, the nights were growing crisp.

“So cratering and rolled edges on metal, and flash melting and penetration of fibers mean an explosion. Our lower leg injuries fit with that.”

“So does the fact that a large part of the fuselage landed intact.”

I planted a foot to stop our forward motion.

“It all adds up to an explosion.”

“Caused by?”

“Bomb. Missile. Mechanical failure. The FAA's Aviation Explosives Security Unit will conduct chromatographic analysis to determine what chemicals might be present, and radiophotography and X-ray diffraction to identify molecular species. And one other. Oh, yeah. Infrared spectrophotometry. Not sure what that one's for, but it has a nice ring. That is, if they can arm-wrestle the job away from the FBI crime lab.”

“Missile?” It was the first I'd heard of that possibility.

“Not likely, but it's been suggested. Remember all the hoopla about a missile bringing down TWA 800? Pierre Salinger bet his nuts the navy was to blame.”

I nodded.

“And these hills are home to a number of militia groups. Maybe Eric Rudolph's white-trash buds got into the arms market and bought a new toy.”

Rudolph was wanted in connection with a number of abortion clinic attacks and as a suspect in the bombing at the 1996 Olympic Games in Atlanta. Rumors persisted that he'd fled to these hills.

“Any idea where this explosion was centered?”

“It's too early to tell. The cabin-interior documentation group is compiling a seat damage chart that'll help pinpoint the blast.”

Ryan pushed with his toes, but I held the swing firm.

“Our group is doing the same for wounds and fractures. Right now it looks like the worst injuries occurred in the back of the plane.” The anthropologists and pathologists were diagramming the distribution of trauma by seat location. “What about the radar group?”

“Nothing unexpected. Following takeoff, the flight routed north-east from the airport toward Athens. The Atlanta air traffic control center is in charge up to Winston-Salem, where Washington takes over, so the plane never left Atlanta ATC. The radar shows an emergency call by the pilot twenty minutes and thirty seconds into the flight. Approximately ninety seconds later the target broke into two, possibly three pieces, and disappeared from the screen.”

Headlights appeared far down the mountain. Ryan and I watched them climb through the dark, swing onto the drive, then cut out in the lot to the left of the house. Moments later a figure materialized on the path. When it crossed in front of us, Ryan spoke.

“Long day?”

“Who's that?” The man was barely an imprint against the black of the sky.

“Andy Ryan.”

“Well, bonsoir, sir. I'd forgotten you were billeted here.” The voice sounded like years of whiskey. All I could make of its owner was a burly man in a dozer cap.

“The lilac shower gel is mine.”

“I've been respecting that, Detective Ryan.”

“I'd buy you a beer but the bar just closed.”

The man climbed to the porch, dragged a chair opposite the swing, placed an athletic bag beside it, and sat. The dim light revealed a fleshy nose and cheeks mottled with broken veins.

When introduced, FBI Special Agent Byron McMahon removed the hat and bowed in my direction. I saw thick white hair, centered and splayed like a cockscomb.

“This one's on me.” Unzipping the bag, McMahon produced a sixpack of Coors.

“Devil liquor,” said Ryan, pulling a beer from the plastic web.

“Yes,” agreed McMahon. “Bless him.” He waggled a can at me.

I wanted that beer as much as I'd wanted anything in a long time. I remembered the feel of booze filtering through my veins, the warmth rising inside me as the molecules of alcohol blended with my own. The sense of relief, well-being.

But I'd learned some things about myself. It had taken years, but I now understood that every double helix in me carries a pledge to Bacchus. Though craving the release, I knew the euphoria would be temporary, the anger and self-loathing would last a long time. I could not drink.

“No, thanks.”

“There's plenty where this came from.”

“That's the problem.”

McMahon smiled, freed a can, and dropped the others into his bag.

“So what's the thinking at the FBI?” Ryan asked.

“Some son of a bitch blew a plane out of the sky.”

“Who does the Bureau like?”

“Your biker buddies score high on a lot of dance cards. This Petricelli was a lowlife sleaze with soup for brains, but he was well connected.”


“Could be a professional hit.”

A breeze swayed Ruby's baskets, and black shadows danced on the banisters and floorboards.

“Here's another script. Mrs. Martha Simington was seated in 1A. Three months ago Haskell Simington insured his wife for two million big ones.”

“That's a chunk of change.”

“Goes a long way toward easing hubby through his pain. Oh, and I forgot to mention. The couple have been living apart for four years.”

“Is Simington enough of a mutant to cap eighty-eight people?” Ryan drained his Coors and tossed the empty into McMahon's athletic bag.

“We're getting to know Simington real well.”

McMahon mimicked Ryan's performance with his empty can.

“Here's another scenario: 12F was occupied by a nineteen-year-old named Anurudha Mahendran. The kid was a foreign student from Sri Lanka and played goalie on the soccer team.”

McMahon released two more beers and handed one to Ryan.

“Back home, Anurudha's uncle works for Voice of Tigers Radio.”

“As in Tamil Tigers?”

“Yes, ma'am. The guy's a loudmouth, undoubtedly slots high on the government's wish list for terminal illness.”

“You suspect the Sri Lankan government?” I was astounded.

“No. But there are extremists on both sides.”

“If you can't persuade unc, go for the kid. Send a message.”

Ryan popped the new beer.

“It may be a long shot, but we have to consider it. Not forgetting our local resources, of course.”

“Local resources?” I asked.

“Two country preachers who live near here. The Reverend Isaiah Claiborne swears the Reverend Luke Bowman shot the plane down.” Another pop. “They're rival snake handlers.”

“Snake handlers?”

I ignored Ryan's question. “Claiborne witnessed something?”

“He insists he saw a white streak shoot from behind Bowman's house, followed by an explosion.”

“Is the FBI taking him seriously?”

McMahon shrugged. “The time tallies. The location would be right with regard to the flight path.”

“What snakes?” Ryan persisted.

“Any word on the voice tapes?” I segued to another subject, not wanting further commentary on the spiritual fervor of our mountain neighbors.

“The calls were made by a white American male with no distinguishable accent.”

“That narrows the field to how many million?”

I caught movement in McMahon's eyes, as though he were seriously considering the question.

“A few.”

McMahon drained his beer, crumpled the can, and added it to his collection. Rising, he wished us both a good evening, and headed for the door. The bell jangled, and moments later a light went on in an upstairs window.

Save for the creak of Ruby's planters, the porch was totally quiet. Ryan lit a cigarette, then, “Did you do coyote patrol?”



“No coyotes. No exposed coffins.”

“Did you find anything interesting?”

“A house.”

“Who lives there?”

“Hansel and Gretel and the cannibal witch.” I stood. “How the hell should I know?”

“Was anyone home?”

“No one rushed out to offer me tea.”

“Is the place abandoned?”

I slung my pack over one shoulder and considered the question.

“I'm not sure. There were gardens once, but those have gone to hell. The house is so well built it's hard to know if it's being maintained or if it's just impervious to damage.”

He waited.

“There is one peculiar thing. From the front, the place is just another unpainted mountain lodge. But around back it has a walled enclosure and a courtyard.”

Ryan's face went apricot, receded into the darkness.

“Tell me about these snake handlers. You have snake handlers in North Carolina?”

I was about to decline when the bell tinkled again. I looked, expecting to see McMahon, but no one appeared.

“Another time.”

Opening the outer screen, I found the heavy wooden door ajar. Once inside, I pushed it tight and tested the handle, hoping Ryan would do the same. Then I trudged to Magnolia, intent on a shower and bed. I was barely in the room when someone tapped softly.

Thinking it was Ryan, I set my face in the hard stare and cracked the door.

Ruby stood in the hall, her features looking solemn and deeply creased. She wore a gray flannel robe, pink socks, and brown slippers shaped like paws. Her hands were clasped at chest level, fingers tightly interlaced.

“I'm about to turn in.” I smiled.

She gazed at me gravely.

“I've had dinner,” I added.

One hand rose, as if to pluck something from the air. It trembled slightly.

“What is it, Ruby?”

“The devil assumes many forms.”

“Yes.” I wanted desperately to bathe and sleep. “But I'm sure you're way ahead of him.”

I reached out to touch her shoulder, but she stepped back and the hands found each other again.

“They fly with Lucifer in the face of divinity. They blaspheme.”

“Who does?”

“They've grasped the keys of Hades and of death. Just like it says in Revelations.”

“Ruby, please speak to me in plain English.”

Her eyes were wide, the nodes in the corners pink and shiny with moisture.

“You're from foreign parts so you can't be knowing.”

“Knowing what?” Irritation curled the edges of my voice. I was not in a mood for parables.

“There's evil here.”

The beer?

“Detective Ryan an—”

“Wicked men scoff at the Almighty.”

This was going nowhere.

“Let's talk about this tomorrow.”

I grasped the doorknob, but a hand flew out and clutched my arm. Calluses scratched the sleeve of my nylon jacket.

“The Lord God has sent a sign.”

She drew even closer.


Gently prying loose the bony fingers, I squeezed Ruby's hand and stepped back. I watched her through the gap as the door swung shut, her small body frozen, the sausage curl crawling her skull like a dull, gray serpent.


@by txiuqw4

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