CHARLOTTE IS A POSTER CHILD FOR MULTIPLE PERSONALITY DISOR der, the Sybil of cities. It is the New South, proud of its skyscrapers, airport, university, NBA Hornets, NFL Panthers, and NASCAR racing. Headquarters to Bank of America and First Union, it is the nation's second largest financial center. It is home to the University of North Carolina at Charlotte. It yearns to be a world-class city.
Yet Charlotte remains nostalgic for the Old South. In its affluent southeast quadrant, it is stately homes and tidy bungalows garnished by azaleas, dogwoods, rhododendrons, redbuds, and magnolias. It is winding streets, front porch swings, and more trees per square mile than any burg on the planet. In spring, Charlotte is a kaleidoscope of pink, white, violet, and red. In fall it blazes with yellow and orange. It has a church on every corner and people attend them. The erosion of the genteel life is a constant topic of conversation, but the same folks lamenting its passage keep one eye on the stock market.
I live at Sharon Hall, a turn-of-the-century estate in the elegant old neighborhood of Myers Park. Once a graceful Georgian manor, the Hall had fallen into disrepair by the 1950s and was donated to a local college. In the mid-eighties the two-and-a-half-acre property was purchased by developers, upfitted, and reincarnated as a modern condominium complex.
While most of the Hall's residents occupy the main house, or one of its recently constructed wings, my condo is a tiny structure on the western edge of the property. Records indicate the building started life as an addition to the coach house, but no document describes its original function. For lack of a better term it is simply called the Annex.
Though cramped, my two stories are bright and sunny, and my small patio is perfect for geraniums, one of the few species able to survive my horticultural ministrations. The Annex has been home since my marital breakup, and it suits me perfectly.
The sky was resolutely blue as I entered the gates and circled the grounds. The petunias and marigolds smelled of autumn, their perfume mingling with the scent of drying leaves. Sunshine warmed the bricks of the Hall's buildings, walks, and perimeter wall.
Rounding the Annex, I was surprised to see Pete's Porsche parked next to my patio, Boyd's head protruding from the passenger side. Spotting me, the dog pricked his ears, pulled in his tongue, then let it dangle again.
Through the back window I could see Birdie in his travel cage. My cat did not look pleased with the transport arrangements.
As I pulled parallel to Pete's car, he rounded the building.
“Jesus, am I glad I caught you.” His face looked anxious.
“What is it?”
“A client's knitting plant just went up in flames. The case is certain to become a matter of litigation, and I've got to get out there with some experts before would-be fire inspectors muck things up.”
“Indianapolis. I was hoping you'd take Boyd for a couple of days.”
The tongue disappeared, dropped again.
“I'm leaving for Bryson City.”
“Boyd loves the highlands. He'd be great company.”
“Look at him.”
Boyd's chin now rested on the window ledge, and saliva trickled down the car's outside panel.
“He'd be protection.”
“That's a stretch.”
“Really. Harvey didn't like unexpected visitors, so he trained Boyd to sniff out strangers.”
“Especially those in uniform.”
“The good, the bad, the ugly, even the beautiful. Boyd makes no distinctions.”
“Isn't there a kennel where he can board?”
“It's full.” He glanced at his watch, then gave me his most beguiling choirboy look. “And my flight leaves in an hour.”
Pete had never refused when I'd needed help with Birdie.
“Go. I'll figure something out.”
“I'll find a kennel.”
Pete squeezed both my arms.
“You're my hero.”
There are twenty-three kennels in the greater Charlotte area. It took an hour to establish that fourteen were fully booked, five did not answer, two could not accommodate a dog over fifty pounds, and two would take no dog without a personal interview.
Boyd raised and cocked his head, then went back to licking my kitchen floor.
Desperate, I made another call.
Ruby was less fastidious. For three dollars a day the dog was welcome, no personal audience required.
My neighbor took Birdie, and the chow and I hit the road.
Halloween has its roots in the pagan festival of Samhain. Held at the onset of winter and the beginning of the Celtic New Year, Samhain was the time when the veil between living and dead was thinnest, and spirits roamed the land of mortals. Fires were extinguished and rekindled, and people dressed up to frighten away the unfriendly departed.
Though the holiday was still two weeks off, the residents of Bryson City were into the concept in a big way. Ghouls, bats, and spiders were everywhere. Scarecrows and tombstones had been erected in front yards, and skeletons, black cats, witches, and ghosts dangled from trees and porch lights. Jack-o'-lanterns leered from every window in town. A couple of cars had rather realistic replicas of human feet protruding from their trunks. Good time to actually dispose of a body, I thought.
By five I'd settled Boyd into a run behind High Ridge House, and myself into Magnolia. Then I drove to the sheriff 's headquarters.
Lucy Crowe was on the phone when I appeared in her doorway. She waved me into her office, and I took one of two chairs. Her desk filled most of the small space, looking like something at which a Confederate general might have penned military orders. Her chair was also ancient, brown leather and studded, with stuffing oozing from the left arm.
“Nice desk,” I said when she'd hung up.
“I think it's ash.” The sea-foam eyes were just as startling as on our first meeting. “It was made by my predecessor's grandfather.”
She leaned back, and the chair squeaked musically.
“Tell me what I've missed.”
“They say you've damaged the investigation.”
“Sometimes you get bad press.”
Her head did a j-stroke. “What have you got?”
“That foot was walking the earth at least sixty-five years. No one on the plane had that privilege. I need to establish that this was not crash evidence.”
The sheriff opened a folder and spread its contents on her blotter.
“I've got three missing persons. Had four, but one turned up.”
“Jeremiah Mitchell, black male, age seventy-two. Disappeared from Waynesville eight months ago. According to patrons at the Mighty High Tap, Mitchell left the bar around midnight to buy hooch. That was February fifteenth. Mitchell's neighbor reported him missing ten days later. He hasn't been seen since.”
“None listed. Mitchell was a loner.”
“Why the neighbor's concern?”
“Mitchell had his ax and the guy wanted it back. Visited the house several times, finally got tired of waiting, went to see if Mitchell was in the drunk tank. He wasn't, so the neighbor filed an MP report, thinking a police search might flush him.”
“And his ax.”
“A man's nothing without his tools.”
She ran a finger down one of the papers.
“Five foot six.”
“That fits. Was he driving?”
“Mitchell was a heavy drinker, traveled by foot. Folks figure he got himself lost and died of exposure.”
“George Adair.” She read from another form. “White male, age sixty-seven. Lived over to Unahala, disappeared two weeks ago. Wife said he went fishing with a buddy and never came back.”
“What was the buddy's story?”
“Woke one morning and Adair wasn't in the tent. Waited a day, then packed up and went home.”
“Where was this fatal fishing trip?”
“The Little Tennessee.” She swiveled and stabbed at a spot on a wall map behind her. “Up the Nantahala Mountains.”
Her finger moved a fraction toward the northeast.
“And where's the crash site?”
Her finger barely moved.
“Who's contestant number three?”
When she turned back, the chair sang another verse.
“Daniel Wahnetah, age sixty-nine, Cherokee from the reservation. Failed to show up for his grandson's birthday on July twenty-seventh. Family reported him missing on August twenty-sixth when he pulled a no-show for his own party.” Her eyes moved down the paper. “No height reported.”
“The family waited a month?”
“Except in winter, Daniel spends most of his time out in the woods. He has a string of camps, works a circuit hunting and fishing.”
She leaned back, and the chair squeaked a tune I didn't know.
“Looks like Jesse Jackson's Rainbow Coalition. If it's one of these guys, nail the race and you've got your man.”
“Folks pretty much stay put up here. Like the idea of dying in their beds.”
“See if any of these guys had foot problems. Or if they left shoes at home. Sole imprints could be useful. And start thinking about DNA. Head hair. Extracted teeth. Even a toothbrush might be a source if it hasn't been cleaned or reused. If there's nothing left from the victim we could work with a comparison sample from a blood relative.”
She jotted a note.
“And be discreet. If the rest of the body is out there and someone's responsible, we don't want to tip them into finishing what the coyotes began.”
“I hadn't thought of that,” she said, her voice chalky.
Again the head movement.
“Sheriff, do you know who owns property about a quarter mile west of the crash site? A house with a walled garden?”
She gazed at me, the eyes like pale green marbles.
“I was born in these mountains, been sheriffing here almost seven years. Until you came along I had no idea there was anything up that hollow but pine.”
“I don't suppose we could get a warrant, have a look inside.”
“Isn't it odd that no one knows about the place?”
“Folks keep to themselves up here.”
“And die in their beds.”
Back at High Ridge House, I took Boyd for a long walk. Or he took me. The chow was psyched, sniffing and baptizing every plant and rock along the road. I enjoyed myself on the downhill lap, awed by soft-focus mountains rolling to the horizon like a Monet landscape. The air was cool and moist, smelling of pine, and loam, and traces of smoke. The trees were alive with the twitter of birds settling in for the night.
The uphill run was another story. Still enthused, Boyd continued to pull on the leash like White Fang mushing across the Arctic. By the time we reached his pen my right arm was dead and my calves ached.
I was closing the gate when I heard Ryan's voice.
“Who's your friend?”
“Boyd. And he's seriously vicious.” I was still out of breath, and the words came out chopped and ragged.
“In training for extreme dog walking?”
“Have a good night, boy,” I said to the dog.
Boyd concentrated on crunching small brown pellets that looked like petrified jerky.
“You talk to dogs, but not to your old partner?”
I turned and looked at him.
“How ya doing, little fella?”
“Don't even think of scratching my ears. I'm doing well. And yourself?”
“Splendid. We were never partners.”
“Did you do your age thing?”
“I was right on.”
I checked the lock, then turned to face him. “Sheriff Crowe's got three elderly MPs. Any scoop on the Bates Motel?”
“Nada. No one knows the place exists. If anyone's using it, they must beam themselves in and out. Either that or no one's talking.”
“I'm going to check the tax rolls as soon as the courthouse opens tomorrow. Crowe's following up on the MPs.”
“Damn.” I avoided the impulse to slap my forehead.
Preoccupied with Larke's dismissal of me, I'd lost all track of the days. Government buildings are closed on weekends.
“Damn,” I repeated for emphasis, and turned back toward the house. Ryan fell into step beside me.
“Interesting briefing today.”
“The NTSB has compiled preliminary damage diagrams. Come to headquarters tomorrow and I'll pull them up for you.”
“Will my presence cause you problems?”
“Call me crazy.”
The investigation had taken over much of the Bryson City area. Up on Big Laurel, work continued at the NTSB command center and temporary morgue established at the crash site. Victim identification was progressing at the incident morgue housed in the Alarka Fire Department, and a family assistance center had been set up at the Sleep Inn on Veterans' Boulevard.
In addition, the federal government had rented space in the Bryson City Fire Department and allotted portions to the FBI, NTSB, ATF, and other organizations. At ten the next morning Ryan and I were seated at a desktop computer in one of the tiny cubicles honeycombing the building's upper floor. Between us were Jeff Lowrey, of the NTSB's cabin-interior documentation group, and Susan Katzenberg of the structures group.
As Katzenberg explained her group's preliminary ground-wreckage diagram, I kept a wary eye out for Larke Tyrell. Though I was with the feds, and not really in violation of Larke's banishment, I didn't want a confrontation.
“Here's the wreckage triangle. The apex is at the crash site, then the trail extends back along the flight path for almost four miles. That's consistent with a parabolic descent from twenty-four thousand feet at approximately four miles per minute climbing to pure vertically down.”
“I processed bodies recovered more than a mile from the primary wreckage field,” I said.
“The pressure hull was breached in midair, permitting the bodies to fall out in flight.”
“Where were the flight recorders?” I asked.
“They were found with pieces of the aft fuselage, about halfway along the wreckage trail.” She pointed at the screen. “In the F-100 the recorders are located in the unpressurized fuselage aft of the rear pressure bulkhead. They went early when something blew out aft and up.”
“So the wreckage pattern is consistent with a midair disintegration sequence?”
“Yes. Anything without wings, that is, without aerodynamic lift generation, falls in a ballistic trajectory, with the heavier stuff going farther horizontally.”
She indicated a large cluster of items, then moved her finger along the trail.
“The initial wreckage on the ground would be the small, light stuff.”
She pushed back from the computer and turned to Ryan and me.
“I hope that helps. Gotta run.”
Lowery took over when she'd gone. The monitor's glow deepened the lines in his face as he bent over the keyboard. He entered commands, and a new pattern filled the screen, looking like a Seurat in primary colors.
“First we established a set of general guidelines to describe the condition of the recovered seats and seat units.”
He pointed out colors in the pattern.
“Seats with minimal damage are indicated by light blue, those with moderate damage by dark blue, those with severe damage by green. Seats classified as ‘destroyed’ are shown in yellow, those classified as ‘fragmented’ in red.”
“What do the categories mean?” I asked.
“Light blue means the seat legs, back, pan, and armrest are intact, as is the safety belt restraint system. Dark blue means there's minor deformation to one or more of those components. Green means both fractures and deformation are present. Yellow indicates a seat with at least two of the five components fractured or missing, and red indicates damage to three or more components.”
The diagram showed a plane interior with lavatory, galleys, and closets behind the cockpit, eight seats in first class and eighteen rows in coach, double on port, triple on starboard. Behind the last row, which was double on both sides, was another set of galleys and lavatories.
A child could have interpreted the pattern. The colors flowed from cool blue to flaming red as they spread from forward to aft, indicating that seats closest to the cockpit were largely intact, those in mid-cabin more damaged, those behind the wings largely demolished. The highest concentration of red was at the rear left of the plane.
Lowery hit the keys and a new chart came up.
“This shows passenger seat assignments, though the aircraft wasn't full and people might have moved around. The cockpit voice recorder indicates that the captain had not turned off the ‘Fasten Seat Belt’ sign, so most passengers should have been seated with their belts fastened. The voice recorder also indicates that the captain had released the flight attendants to begin cabin service, so they could have been anywhere.”
“Will you ever be able to tell who was seated and who wasn't?”
“Recovered seats will be examined for evidence of belt restraint, things like belt loading, belt cuts, occupant-related deformation. With data from the medical/anthropology group we'll try to correlate seat damage with body fragmentation.”
I listened, knowing the bodies would be coded, just as the seats had been. Green: body intact. Yellow: crushed head or loss of one extremity. Blue: loss of two extremities with or without crushed head. Red: loss of three or more extremities or complete transection of body.
“The autopsy reports will also show where passengers with penetrating materials, thermal burns, or chemical burns were seated within the cabin,” Lowery went on. “We'll also try to correlate right-versus-left-side injury patterns with right-versus-left-seat deformation.”
“What does that tell you?” Ryan asked.
“A high degree of correlation would suggest that passengers remained seated through most of the crash sequence. A poor correlation would mean either they were not in their assigned seats, or they became separated from their seats fairly early in the sequence.”
I felt a chill thinking of the terror-filled final moments of those passengers.
“The docs will also give us data on anterior-versus-posterior injuries, which we'll correlate to fore-versus-aft seat deformation.”
“It's assumed that the forward motion of the plane combined with the protective effect of the seat at the occupant's back result in predominantly anterior injuries.”
“Unless the passenger is separated from the seat.”
“Exactly. Also, in crashes with forward velocity, forward-facing seats are deformed in the forward direction. In midair breakups, that pattern may not occur, since portions of the plane may have tumbled prior to impact.”
“Of the seats recovered so far, over seventy percent show detectable deformation in the fore-aft plane. Of those, less than forty percent were deformed in the forward direction.”
“Meaning in-flight destruction.”
“No doubt about it. Susan's group is still studying the mode of breakup. They'll try to reconstruct the exact sequence of failure, but it's pretty clear there was a sudden, catastrophic midair event. That means that parts of the fuselage tumbled prior to ground impact. I'm a little surprised there isn't more variation among the various sections, but these things never follow the book. What is clear is that the seats in each section show nearly identical impact loading.”
He worked the keys, and the original diagram filled the screen.
“And there's little doubt where the blast occurred.” He pointed to the splotch of fiery red at the left rear of the cabin.
“An explosion doesn't necessarily mean a bomb.”
We swiveled to see Magnus Jackson standing at the cubicle entrance. He looked at me a long time but said nothing. The screen glowed rainbow bright behind us.
“The rocket scenario has been given some new credibility,” Jackson said.
We all waited.
“There are now three witnesses claiming to have seen an object shoot into the sky.”
Ryan crooked an arm over the back of his chair. “I've talked to the Right Reverends Mr. Claiborne and Mr. Bowman, and I'd estimate a combined IQ in the woolly worm range.”
I wondered how Ryan knew about woolly worms but didn't ask.
“All three witnesses give times and descriptions that are virtually identical.”
“Like their genetic codes,” Ryan quipped.
“Will these witnesses take lie detector tests?” I asked.
“They probably think a microwave will fry their genitals,” Ryan said.
Jackson almost smiled, but Ryan's jokes were beginning to annoy me.
“You're right,” Jackson said. “There's a healthy suspicion of authority and science in the rural areas up here. The witnesses refuse to submit to polygraphs on the grounds that the government could use the technology to alter their brains.”
“Give them upgrades?”
Jackson did smile briefly. Then the investigator in charge studied me again, and left without another word.
“Can we go back to the seating chart?” I asked.
Lowery entered a sequence of keystrokes and the diagram filled the screen.
“Can you superimpose the seat damage over that?”
Another few keys and the Seurat was in place.
“Where was Martha Simington seated?”
Lowery pointed to the first row in first class: “1A.”
“And the Sri Lankan exchange student?”
“Anurudha Mahendran—12F, just forward of the right wing.”
“Where were Jean Bertrand and Rémi Petricelli?”
Lowery's finger moved to the last row on the left.
“Twenty-three A and B.”