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Chapter 9

I AWOKE TO THE SOUND OF A PHONE. P ETE HAD DRAWN THE shades, and the room was so dim I needed several rings to locate it.

“Meet me at Providence Road Sundries tonight and I'll buy you a burger.”

“Pete, I—”

“You drive a hard bargain. Meet me at Bijoux.”

“It's not the restaurant.”

“Tomorrow night?”

“I don't think so.”

The line hummed.

“Remember when I wrecked the Volkswagen and insisted we push on?”

“Georgia to Illinois with no headlights.”

“You didn't speak to me for six hundred miles.”

“It's not like that, Pete.”

“Didn't you enjoy last night?”

I loved last night.

“It's not that.”

I heard voices in the background and looked at the clock. Eight-ten.

“Are you at work?”

“Yes, ma'am.”

“Why are you phoning?”

“You asked me to wake you.”

“Oh.” An old routine. “Thanks.”

“No problem.”

“And thanks for keeping Birdie.”

“Has he made an appearance?”

“Briefly. He looked edgy.”

“The old Bird has become set in his ways.”

“Birdie never liked dogs.”

“Or change.”

“Or change.”

“Some change is good.”


“I have changed.”

I'd heard that from Pete. He'd said it after his tryst with a court reporter three years earlier, again following a Realtor episode. I hadn't waited for the trifecta.

“That was a bad time for me,” he went on.

“Yeah. Me, too.”

I hung up and took a long shower, reflecting on our failings. Pete was where I'd always turned for advice, comfort, support. He'd been my safety net, the calm I'd seek after a day of tempest. The breakup had been devastating, but it had also brought out strength I'd never known I had.

Or ever used.

When I'd toweled off and wrapped my hair, I studied myself in the mirror.

Question: What was I thinking last night?

Answer: I wasn't. I was angry, hurt, vulnerable, and alone. And I hadn't had sex in a very long time.

Question: Would it happen again?

Answer: No.

Question: Why not?

Why not? I still loved Pete. I had since first laying eyes on him, barefoot and bare-chested on the steps of the law school library. I'd loved him as he lied about Judy, then Ellen. I'd loved him as I packed and left two years ago.

And I obviously still found him sexy as hell.

My sister, Harry, has a Texas expression. Flat ass stupid. Though I love Pete, and find him sexy, I am not flat ass stupid. That's why it would not happen again.

I wiped steam from the glass, remembering the old me looking back from that same mirror. My hair was blond when we first moved in, long and straight to my shoulders. It's short now, and I've abandoned the golden surfer look. But gray hairs are sneaking in, and I'll soon be checking out the Clairol browns. The lines have increased and deepened around my eyes, but my jawline is firm and my upper lids have stayed put.

Pete always said my butt was my best feature. That, too, has remained in place, though effort is now required. But, unlike many of my contemporaries, I own no spandex and have never hired a personal trainer. I possess no treadmill, step machine, or stationary bike. I do not enroll in aerobics or kickboxing classes, and have not run in an organized race in over five years. I go to the gym in T-shirts and FBI shorts, tied at the waist with a drawstring. I jog or swim, lift, then leave. When the weather is nice, I run outside.

I've also tried to tighten up on what I eat. Daily vitamins. Red meat no more than three times a week. Junk food no more than five.

I was positioning my panties when my cell phone rang. Racing to the bedroom, I upended my purse, retrieved the phone, and hit the button.

“Where have you disappeared to?”

Ryan's voice was completely unexpected. I hesitated, panties in one hand, phone in the other, unable to think of a thing to say.


“I'm here.”

“Here where?”

“I'm in Charlotte.”

There was a pause. Ryan broke it.

“This whole thing is a crock of sh—”

“Have you talked to Tyrell?”


“Did you describe the coyote scene?”


“And he said?”

“Thank ya, sir.” Ryan mimicked the ME's drawl.

“This isn't Tyrell's idea.”

“There's something off center about the whole thing.”

“What do you mean?”

“I'm not sure.”

“What's off center?”

“Tyrell was jumpy. I've only known him a week, but jumpy is not normal demeanor for him. Something is making him squirm. He knows you didn't tamper with remains, and he knows Earl Bliss ordered you up here last week.”

“So who's behind the complaint?”

“I don't know, but I sure as hell intend to find out.”

“It's not your problem, Ryan.”


“Any developments in the investigation?” I switched the subject.

I heard a match flare, then a deep inhalation.

“Simington is starting to look like a good choice.”

“The guy with the heavily insured wife?”

“It's better than that. The new widower owns a company that does highway construction.”


“Easy access to plastic X.”

“Plastic X?”

“Plastic explosive. The stuff was used in Vietnam, but now it's sold to private industry for construction, mining, demolition. Hell, farmers can get it to blast out tree stumps.”

“Aren't explosives tightly controlled?”

“Yes and no. The regs for transport are tighter than those for storage and use. If a highway is under construction, for example, you need a special truck with escorts and a prescribed route bypassing congested areas. But once the stuff is on-site it's usually stored in a mobile vault in the middle of a field with the word explosive written on it in large letters.

“The company hires some old geezer as guard and pays him minimum wage, mainly to meet insurance requirements. Vaults can be burgled, misplaced, or simply disappear.”

Ryan drew on his cigarette, exhaled.

“The military is supposed to account for every ounce of plastic explosive, but construction crews don't have to ledger up that precisely. Say a blaster gets ten sticks, uses three quarters of each, and pockets the rest. No one's the wiser. All the guy needs is a detonator and he's in business. Or he can sell the stuff black market. Explosives are always in demand.”

“Assuming Simington filched explosives, could he have gotten them on board?”

“Apparently it's not all that hard. Terrorists used to take plastique, flatten it to the thickness of a wad of bills, and put it in their wallets. How many security guards check the bills in your wallet? And you can get an electrical detonator the size of a watchcase these days. The Libyan terrorists that blew up Pan Am 103 over Lockerbie slipped the stuff on in a cassette case. Simington could have found a way.”


“I've also had news from la belle province. Earlier this week a group of homeowners got suspicious about a Ferrari parked on their street. It seems sports cars costing over a hundred thousand dollars don't commonly overnight in that part of Montreal. Turned out to be a good call. Police found the owner, one Alain ‘the Fox’ Barboli, stuffed in the trunk with two bullets in his head. Barboli was a member of the Rock Machine and had ties to the Sicilian Mafia. Carcajou's got it.”

Opération Carcajou was a multiagency task force devoted to the investigation of outlaw bikers in Quebec province. I'd worked with them on a number of murders.

“Does Carcajou think Barboli was revenge for Petricelli?”

“Or Barboli was involved in the Petricelli hit and the big boys are sanitizing the witness list. If there was a hit.”

“If Simington could get his hands on explosives, the Hells Angels would have no problem.”

“Like buying Cheez Whiz at the 7-Eleven. Look, why don't you get back up here and tell this Tyrell—”

“I want to check some bone samples to make sure I'm right on my age estimate. If that foot didn't come from the plane, the tampering charges will be irrelevant.”

“I mentioned your suspicions about the foot to Tyrell.”


“And nothing. He brushed it off.”

Again I felt the flush of anger.

“Have you turned up any unlisted passengers?”

“Nope. Hanover swears deadheading is strictly regulated. No paper, no ride. The Air TransSouth employees we've interviewed confirm their CEO's claim.”

“Anyone who might have been transporting body parts?”

“No anatomists, anthropologists, podiatrists, orthopedic surgeons, or corrective footwear salesmen. And Jeffrey Dahmer isn't flying these days.”

“You're a scream, Ryan.”

I hesitated.

“Has Jean been identified?”

“He and Petricelli remain among the missing.”

“They'll find him.”


“You all right?”

“Tough as nails. How 'bout you? Feeling lonely all by yourself?”

“I'm fine,” I said, staring at the bed I'd just vacated.

North Carolina has a centralized medical examiner system, with headquarters in Chapel Hill and regional offices in Winston-Salem, Greenville, and Charlotte. Due to geography, and to its physical layout, the Charlotte branch, dubbed the Mecklenburg County Medical Examiner, was chosen for the processing of specimens collected at the incident morgue in Bryson City. A technician had been loaned from Chapel Hill, and a temporary histology unit had been set up.

The Mecklenburg County Medical Examiner is part of the Harold R. “Hal” Marshall County Services Center, which takes up both sides of College Street between Ninth and Tenth, just on the edge of uptown. The facility's home was once a Sears Garden Center. Though an architectural orphan, it is modern and efficient.

But Hal's tenure may be threatened. Shunned for years, the land on which the center sits, with its views of condos, shops, and bistros, has caught the interest of developers as more fitting for mixed-use commercial expansion than for use as county offices, parking lots, and a morgue. American Express gold cards, cappuccino makers, and Hornets and Panthers club seats may soon flourish where scalpels, gurneys, and autopsy tables used to hold sway.

Twenty minutes after finally donning the panties, I pulled into the MCME lot. Across College, the homeless were being served hot dogs and lemonade from folding tables. Blankets covered the moss strip between sidewalk and curb, displaying shoes, shirts, and socks for the taking. A score of indigents milled about, nowhere to go, in no hurry to get there.

Locking the car, I walked to the low-rise redbrick structure and was buzzed through the glass doors. After greeting the ladies up front, I checked in with Tim Larabee, the Mecklenburg County ME. He led me to a computer that had been set aside for crash victim processing and pulled up case number 387. It was probably violating the terms of my banishment, but I had to take the chance.

DNA testing was being done at the Charlotte-Mecklenburg crime laboratory, and those results were not yet available. But the histology was ready. The samples I'd cut from the ankle and foot bones had been shaved into slivers less than one hundred microns thick, processed, stained, and placed on slides. I got them and settled at a microscope.

Bone is a miniature universe in which birth and death occur constantly. The basic unit is the osteon, composed of concentric loops of bone, a canal, osteocytes, vessels, and nerves. In living tissue osteons are born, nourished, and eventually replaced by newer units.

When magnified and viewed under polarized light, osteons resemble tiny volcanoes, ovoid cones with central craters and flanks that spread out to flatlands of primary bone. The number of volcanoes increases with age, as does the count of abandoned calderas. By determining the density of these features one arrives at an age estimate.

First I looked for signs of abnormality. In the cross-section of a long bone, thinning of the shaft, scalloping of its inner or outer edges, or abnormal deposition of woven bone can indicate problems, including fracture healing or unusually rapid remodeling. I saw no such anomalies.

Satisfied that a realistic age estimate was possible, I increased the magnification to one hundred and inserted a ruled ocular micrometer into the eyepiece. The grid contained one hundred squares, with each side measuring one millimeter at the level of the section. Moving from slide to slide, I studied the miniature landscapes, carefully counting and recording the features within each grid. When I'd finished and plugged my totals into the proper formulae, I had my answer.

The owner of the foot had been at least sixty-five, probably nearer to seventy.

I leaned back and considered that. No one on the manifest was close to that age range. What were the options?

One. An unlisted traveler was on board. A septuagenarian deadheader? A senior citizen stowaway? Unlikely.

Two. A passenger had carried the foot on board. Ryan said they'd found no one whose profile suggested an interest in body parts.

Three. The foot was unrelated to Air TransSouth 228.

Then where did it come from?

I dug a card from my purse, checked the number, and dialed.

“Swain County Sheriff 's Department.”

“Lucy Crowe, please.”

“Who's calling.”

I gave my name and waited. Moments later I heard the gravelly voice.

“I probably shouldn't be talking to you.”

“You've heard.”

“I've heard.”

“I could try to explain, but I don't think I understand the situation myself.”

“I don't know you well enough to judge.”

“Why are you talking to me?”

“Gut instinct.”

“I'm working to clear this up.”

“That'd be good. You've got 'em buzzing at the top of the heap.”

“What do you mean?”

“I just had a call from Parker Davenport.”

“The lieutenant governor?”

“Himself. Ordered me to keep you off the crash site.”

“Doesn't he have better things to worry about?”

“Apparently you're a hot topic. My deputy took a call this morning. Fellow wanted to know where you live and where you were staying up here.”

“Who was he?”

“Wouldn't give a name, hung up when my deputy insisted.”

“Was he press?”

“We're pretty good at spotting that.”

“There's something you can do for me, Sheriff.”

I heard the sound of long-distance air.


“I'm listening.”

I described the foot, and my reasons for doubting its association with the crash.

“Could you check on missing persons for Swain and the surrounding counties?”

“Got any descriptors besides age?”

“Sixty-three to sixty-six inches in height, with bad feet. When the DNA's in I'll know the gender.”

“Time frame?”

Despite the soft tissue preservation, I decided on broad parameters.

“One year.”

“I know we've got some here in Swain. I'll pull those up. And I suppose there's no harm in sending out a few queries.”

When we'd disconnected, I sealed the slide case and returned it to the technician. As I drove toward home new questions burned in my brain, fanned by feelings of anger and humiliation.

Why wasn't Larke Tyrell defending me? He knew the commitment I felt to my work, knew I'd never compromise an investigation.

Could Parker Davenport be Tyrell's “powerful people”? Larke was an appointed official. Could the lieutenant governor be putting pressure on his chief medical examiner? Why?

Could Lucy Crowe's reaction to Davenport be accurate? Was the lieutenant governor concerned with his image and planning to use me for publicity purposes?

I remembered him at the crash site, hanky to his mouth, eyes down to avoid the carnage.

Or was it me he was avoiding? An unpleasant feeling shifted inside me, and I tried to erase the image. It was no good. My mind was like a computer with no delete button.

I thought of Ryan's advice. Pete's. Both were saying the same thing.

I dialed Information, then placed a call.

Ruby answered after two rings.

I identified myself and asked if Magnolia was available.

“The room's empty, but I offered it to one of the downstairs boarders.”

“I'd like to check back in.”

“They told me you were gone for good. Cleared the bill.”

“I'll pay you for a week in advance.”

“Must be the Lord's will the other 'un hasn't moved up there yet.”

“Yes,” I answered, with an enthusiasm I didn't feel. “The Lord's will.”


@by txiuqw4

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