THE NEXT DAY HONORED SOMEONE. C HRISTOPHER C OLUMBUS, I think. By midmorning it had turned into a nightmare.
I drove to the morgue through mist so thick it obliterated the mountains, and worked until ten-thirty. When I broke for coffee, Larke Tyrell was in the staff room. He waited while I filled a cup with industrial sludge and added white powder.
“There's something we need to talk about.”
“Not here.” He looked at me a long time. The look meant something, and I felt a prick of anxiety.
“What is it, Larke?”
Taking my arm, he propelled me out the back door.
“Tempe, I don't know how to say this.” He swirled his coffee, and iridescent clouds slid across the surface.
“Just say it.” I kept my voice low and level.
“There's been a complaint.”
“I feel terrible about this.” He studied his cup a few more seconds, then raised his eyes to mine. “It's about you.”
“Me?” I was incredulous.
“What did I do?”
“The complaint cites unprofessional behavior of a nature sufficient to compromise the investigation.”
“Entering the site without authority and mishandling evidence.”
I stared at him in disbelief.
“Trespass?” A cold fist was closing around my gut.
“Did you poke around that property we talked about?”
“It wasn't trespass. I wanted to talk to the owners.”
“Did you try to break in?”
“Of course not!”
I flashed on myself prying a shutter with a rusty bar.
“And I had authorization to enter the crash site last week.”
“Earl Bliss sent me there. You know that.”
“See, here's the problem, Tempe.” Larke rubbed a hand across his chin. “At that point DMORT hadn't been requested.”
I was stunned.
“In what way did I mishandle evidence?”
“I hate to even ask this.” The hand went back to the chin. “Tempe—”
“Did you pick up remains that hadn't been logged?”
“I told you about that.” Stay calm. “I made a judgment call.”
He said nothing.
“Had I left that foot, it would now be coyote dung. Talk to Andrew Ryan. He was there.”
“I'll do that.”
Larke reached out and squeezed my arm.
“We'll sort this out.”
“You're taking this seriously?”
“I have no choice.”
“Why is that?”
“You know the press are snapping at my backside. They're gonna jump on this like a hound with a one-eyed hare.”
“Who made this complaint?” I blinked back tears.
“I can't tell you that.”
He dropped his hand and stared off at the mist. It was lifting now, revealing the landscape in a slow, upward peel. When he turned back, there was an odd expression on his face.
“But I will tell you that powerful people are involved.”
“The Dalai Lama? The Joint Chiefs of Staff?” Anger hardened my voice.
“Don't be mad at me, Tempe. This investigation is big news. If problems develop, no one's going to want to own them.”
“So I'm being set up in case a scapegoat is needed.”
“It's nothing like that. I just have to go through proper procedures.”
I took a deep breath.
“What happens now?”
He looked straight at me and his voice softened.
“I'm going to have to ask you to leave.”
It was my turn to stare into the mist.
High Ridge House was deserted in the middle of the day. I left a note for Ruby, thanking her and apologizing for my abrupt departure and for my coolness the night before. Then I gathered my belongings, tossed them into my Mazda, and drove off so fast the tires threw up a gravel spray.
All the way home to Charlotte I stopped and started hard, screeching from lights then weaving from lane to lane once I reached the highway. For three hours I crawled up bumpers and rode the horn. I talked to myself, trying out words. Vile. Despicable. Vicious. Other drivers avoided my eyes and gave me lots of space.
I was irate and depressed at the same time. The injustice of an anonymous accusation. The helplessness. For a week I'd been working under brutal conditions, seeing, smelling, and feeling death. I'd dropped everything, devoted myself to the effort, then been dismissed like a servant suspected of stealing. No hearing. No opportunity for explanation. No thank-you. Pack and go.
Besides the professional humiliation, there was the personal letdown. Though we'd been friends for years, and Larke knew I was scrupulous about professional ethics, he hadn't defended me. Larke was not a cowardly man. I had expected more of him.
The wild driving served its purpose. By the outskirts of Charlotte my cascading fury had congealed into cold resolve. I'd done nothing inappropriate and I would clear my name. I would find out what this grievance was, quash it, and finish my work. And I would confront the accuser.
My empty town house destroyed that resolve. No one to greet me. No one to hold me and tell me I'd be fine. Ryan was quibbling with a distant Danielle, whoever she was. Ryan had told me it was none of my business. Katy was with her friend, gender unspecified, and Birdie and Pete were far across town. I threw down my bags, flung myself on the sofa, and dissolved into tears.
Ten minutes later I lay quietly, chest heaving, feeling like a kid coming off a tantrum. I'd accomplished nothing and felt drained. Dragging myself to the bathroom, I blew my nose, then checked my phone messages.
Zero to brighten my mood. A student. Salesmen. My sister, Harry, calling from Texas. A query from my friend Anne: Could we get together for lunch since she and Ted were leaving for London?
Great. They were probably dining at the Savoy as I erased her words. I decided to collect Birdie. At least he would purr in my lap.
Pete still lives in the house we shared for almost twenty years. Though it is worth hundreds of thousands of dollars, the fence is mended with a wooden block, and a makeshift goal sags in the backyard, testimonial to Katy's soccer years. The house is painted, the gutters cleaned, the lawn mowed by professionals. A maid maintains the inside. But beyond normal upkeep, my estranged husband believes in laissez-faire and the quick patch. He feels no obligation to protect area real estate values. I used to worry about neighborhood protests. The separation relieved me of that.
A furry brown face watched through the fence as I swung onto the drive. When I climbed from the car, it crinkled and gave a low “rrup!”
“Is he here?” I asked, slamming the door.
The dog lowered its head, and a purple tongue dropped from its mouth.
I circled to the front and rang. No response.
I rang again. A key still hung from my chain, but I wouldn't use it. Though we'd been living apart for over two years, Pete and I were still stepping carefully in establishing the new order between us. The sharing of keys involved an intimacy I didn't want to imply.
But it was Thursday afternoon and Pete would be at the office. And I wanted my cat.
I was digging in my purse, when the door opened.
“Hello, attractive stranger. Need a place to sleep?” said Pete, surveying me from top to bottom.
I was wearing the khakis and Doc Martens I'd donned for the morgue at six that morning. Pete was perfect in a three-piece suit and Gucci loafers.
“I thought you'd be at work.”
I wiped knuckles across the mascara smears on my lower lids, and took a quick peek inside the house. If I spotted a woman I'd die of humiliation.
“Why aren't you at work?”
He glanced left, then right, lowered his voice, and gestured me close, as if imparting secure information. “Rendezvous with the plumber.”
I didn't want to contemplate what had gone so wrong that Mr. Fix It would call in an expert.
“I came for Birdie.”
“I think he's free.” Pete stepped back. I entered a foyer lighted by my great-aunt's chandelier.
“How about a drink?”
I drilled him a look that could slice feldspar. Pete had witnessed many of my Academy Award performances, and knew better.
“You know what I mean.”
“A Diet Coke would be nice.”
While Pete rattled glassware and ice cubes in the kitchen, I called up the stairs to Birdie. No cat. I tried the parlor, dining room, and den.
Once upon a time, Pete and I had lived together in these rooms, reading, talking, listening to music, making love. We'd nurtured Katy from infant to toddler to adolescent, redecorating her room and adjusting our lives with each passage. I'd watch the honeysuckle come and go through the window over the kitchen sink, welcoming every season. Those had been fairy-tale days, a time when the American dream seemed real and attainable.
Pete reappeared, transformed from attorney-chic to yuppiecasual. The jacket and vest were gone, the tie loosened, the shirtsleeves rolled to below the elbows. He looked good.
“Where's Bird?” I asked.
“He's been keeping to the upper decks since Boyd checked in.”
He handed me a mug with Uz to mums atkal jaiedzer! scrolled around the glass. “To that we must drink again!” in Latvian.
“Boyd's the dog?”
“Interesting point. Have a seat and I'll share with you the saga of Boyd.”
Pete got pretzels from the kitchen and joined me on the couch.
“Boyd belongs to one Harvey Alexander Dineen, a gentleman recently in need of pro bono defense. Completely surprised by his arrest, and lacking family, Harvey requested that I look after his dog until the misunderstanding with the state was cleared up.”
“And you agreed?”
“I appreciated his confidence in me.”
Pete licked salt from a pretzel, bit off the large loop, and washed it down with beer.
“Boyd's on his own for a minimum of ten and a maximum of twenty. I figured he'd get hungry.”
“What is he?”
“He thinks of himself as an entrepreneur. The judge called him a con man and career criminal.”
“I meant the dog.”
“Boyd's a chow. Or at least most of him is. We'd need DNA testing to clarify the rest.”
He ate the other half of the pretzel.
“Been out with any good corpses lately?”
“Very funny.” My face must have suggested that it was not.
“Sorry. Must be grim up there.”
“We're getting through it.”
We made small talk for a while, then Pete invited me for dinner. Our usual routine. He asked, I refused. Today I thought of Larke's allegations, Anne and Ted's London adventure, and my empty condo.
“What are you serving?”
His eyebrows shot up in surprise.
“Linguini con sauce vongole.”
A Pete specialty. Canned clams on overcooked pasta.
“Why don't I pick up steaks while you deal with the plumber. When the pipes are flowing, we can grill the meat.”
“It's an upstairs toilet.”
“It will be good for Bird to see that we're friends. I think he still blames himself.”
Boyd joined us at dinner, sitting beside the table, eyes glued to the New York strips, now and then pawing a knee to remind us of his presence.
Pete and I talked about Katy, about old friends, and about old times. He discussed some current litigation, and I described one of my recent cases, a student found hanging in his grandmother's barn nine months after his disappearance. I was pleased that we'd reached a comfort level at which normal conversation was possible. Time flew, and Larke and his complaint receded from my thoughts.
After a dessert of strawberries on vanilla ice cream, we took coffee to the den and switched on the news. The Air TransSouth crash was the lead story.
A grim-faced woman stood at the overlook, the Great Smoky Mountains rolling behind her, and talked of a meet in which thirty-four athletes would never compete. She reported that the cause of the crash was still unclear, although a midair explosion was now almost certain. To date forty-seven victims had been identified, and the investigation was continuing around the clock.
“It's smart they're giving you time off,” Pete said.
I didn't answer.
“Or did they send you down here on a secret mission?”
I felt a tremor in my chest and kept my eyes on my Doc Martens.
Pete slid close and raised my chin with an index finger.
“Hey, babe, I'm only kidding. Are you O.K.?”
I nodded, not trusting myself to speak.
“You don't look too O.K.”
“Do you want to tell me about it?”
I must have, for the words poured out. I told him about the days of gore, about the coyotes and my attempts to pinpoint the foot's origin, about the anonymous complaint and my dismissal. I left out nothing but Andrew Ryan. When I finally wound down my feet were curled beneath me, and I was clutching a throw pillow to my chest. Pete was regarding me intently.
For a few moments neither of us spoke. The schoolhouse clock ticked loudly from the den wall, and I wondered idly who kept it wound.
Tick. Tick. Tick.
“Well, this has been fun,” I said, unwinding my legs.
Pete took my hand, his eyes still steady on my face.
“What are you going to do about it?”
“What can I do?” I said irritably, pulling free. I was already embarrassed by my outpouring and dreaded what I knew was coming. Pete always gave the same advice when aggravated by others. “Fuck 'em.”
He surprised me.
“Your DMORT commander will clear up the issue of entering the site. The foot is central to the rest. Was anyone around when you picked the thing up?”
“There was a cop nearby.” I focused on the pillow.
I shook my head.
“Did he see the coyotes?”
“Do you know who he is?”
“That should settle that. Have this cop contact Tyrell and describe the situation.” He leaned back. “The trespass is going to be tougher.”
“I wasn't trespassing,” I said hotly.
“How strongly do you feel about this foot?”
“I don't think it fits with anyone on the passenger list. That's why I was snooping around.”
“Because of the age.”
“Largely. It also looked more decomposed.”
“Can you prove the age?”
“What do you mean?”
“Are you absolutely certain the foot donor was that old?”
“Is there any other test that can more firmly establish your age estimate?” Pete, the lawyer.
“I'll check the histology once the samples are processed.”
“When is that?”
“Slide preparation is taking forev—”
“Go there tomorrow. Get your slides bumped. Don't quit until you know the guy's collar size and the name of his bookie.”
“I could try.”
Pete was right. I was being a pansy.
“Then ID Foot Man and shove it up Tyrell's ass.”
“How do I do that?”
“If your foot didn't come from the plane, it must be local.”
“Start by finding out who owns that property.”
“How do I do that?”
“Has the FBI checked the place out?”
“They're involved in the crash investigation, but until there's proof of sabotage, the Bureau isn't officially in charge. Besides, given my current status, I doubt they're going to share their thoughts with me.”
“Then find out on your own.”
“Check the title to the property and the tax rolls at the county courthouse.”
“Can you walk me through that?”
I took notes as he talked. By the time he finished, my resolve was back. No more whining and self-pity. I'd probe that foot until I knew every detail of its owner's life. Then I'd find out where it came from, nail an ID, and paste it to Larke Tyrell's forehead.
“Thank you so much, Pete.”
I leaned over and kissed him on the cheek. Without hesitating, he drew me in. Before I could pull back, he returned my cheek kiss, then another, then his lips slid to my neck, my ear, my mouth. I smelled the familiar mix of sweat and Aramis, and a million images burst in my brain. I felt the arms and chest I'd known for two decades, that had once held only me.
I loved making love with Pete. I always had, from that first earthquake magic in his tiny room on Clarke Avenue in Champaign, Illinois, to the later years, when it became slower, deeper, a melody I knew as well as the curves of my own body. Making love with Pete was all-encompassing. It was pure sensation and total detachment. I needed that now. I needed the familiar and comforting, the shattering of my consciousness, the stopping of time.
I thought of my silent apartment. I thought of Larke and his “powerful people,” of Ryan and the unknown Danielle, of separation and distance. Then Pete's hand slid to my breast.
“Fuck 'em,” I thought.
Then I thought of nothing else.