THE NEXT MORNING I SLEPT UNTIL EIGHT, FED B OYD, AND OVER dosed on one of Ruby's mountain breakfasts. My hostess had bonded with the dog, and that day's Scripture lauded the fish of the sea, the fowl of the air, and things that creepeth upon the earth. I wondered if Boyd qualified as a creeper but didn't ask.
Ryan hadn't appeared by the time I left the dining room. Either he was out early, sacking in, or passing up the hotcakes, bacon, and grits. We'd returned from Injun Joe's around eleven the previous night, and he'd proffered his usual invitation. I'd left him on the front porch, swinging without me.
I was climbing to Magnolia when my cell phone rang. It was Primrose, calling from the incident morgue.
“You must have risen with the birds.”
“Have you been outside?” she asked.
“It's a great gettin'-up morning out there.”
“Did you get the fax?”
“I surely did. Studied the descriptions and diagrams and took every measurement.”
“You're amazing, Primrose.”
I double-stepped the last few stairs, raced to my room, and opened the file on case number 387. After jotting down the new figures, we compared Primrose's data with that which I'd already collected.
“Each of your measurements is within one millimeter of mine,” I said. “You're good.”
“You got that right.”
Confident that inter-observer error would not be a problem, I thanked her, and asked when I could get the chapter. She suggested I meet her at the parking lot gate in twenty minutes. In her opinion, entry into the morgue was not yet an option for me.
Primrose must have been watching, for as soon as I left the highway she emerged through the morgue's back door and began picking her way across the lot, cane in one hand, plastic grocery bag in the other.
Meanwhile, the guard came forward, read my license plate, and checked a clipboard. Then he shook his head, held one hand in a halt gesture, and signaled me to reverse direction with the other. Primrose approached him and said a few words.
The guard continued to signal and shake his head. Primrose leaned close and spoke again, old black woman to young black man. The guard rolled his eyes, then folded his hands across his chest and watched her continue toward my car, a five-star general in boots, fatigues, and granny bun.
Leaning on her cane, she handed the bag through the driver's-side window. Her face was serious a moment, then a smile lighted her eyes, and she patted me on the shoulder.
“Don't you pay this trouble no mind, Tempe. You haven't done any of those things and they'll see that soon.”
“Thanks, Primrose. You're right, but it's hard.”
“Course it is. But I'm keeping you in my prayers.”
Her voice was as soothing as a Brandenburg Concerto.
“In the meantime, you just take one day at a time. One damn day at a time.”
With that she turned and set off toward the morgue.
I'd rarely heard Primrose Hobbs curse.
Back in my room, I pulled out the chapter, flipped to Table IV, plugged in the measurements, and did the math.
The foot classified as American Indian.
I calculated again, using a second function.
Though closer to the cluster for African Americans, the foot still fell with the Native Americans.
George Adair was white, Jeremiah Mitchell was black. So much for the missing fisherman and the man who'd borrowed his neighbor's ax.
Unless he'd wandered back to the reservation, Daniel Wahnetah was looking like a match.
I checked my watch. Ten forty-five. Late enough.
The sheriff was not in. No. They would not phone her at home. No. They would not give out her pager number. Was this an emergency? They would relay the message that I had called.
Damn. Why hadn't I gotten Crowe's pager number?
For the next two hours I engaged in irrelevant activity, directed by the brain for tension relief rather than goal attainment. Behaviorists call it displacement.
Following a laundry session involving panties in the bathroom sink, I sorted and organized the contents of my briefcase, deleted temporary files from my laptop, balanced my checkbook, and rearranged Ruby's glass animal collection. I then phoned my daughter, sister, and estranged husband.
Pete did not answer, and I assumed he was still in Indiana. Katy did not answer, and I made no assumptions. Harry kept me on the phone for forty minutes. She was quitting her job, having trouble with her teeth, and dating a man named Alvin from Denton. Or was it Denton from Alvin?
I was testing the ring options on my phone when a strange baying arose from the yard, like a hound in a Bela Lugosi movie. Peering through the screen, I saw Boyd seated in the middle of his run, head thrown back, a wail rising from his throat.
He stopped howling and looked around. Far down the mountain I heard a siren.
“I'm up here.”
The dog stood and cocked his head, then the purple tongue slid out.
“Look up, boy.”
“Up!” I clapped my hands.
The chow spun, ran to the end of the pen, sat, and resumed his love song to the ambulance.
The first thing one notices on meeting Boyd is his disproportionately large head. It was becoming clear that the dog's cranial capacity was in no way related to the size of his intellect.
Grabbing jacket and leash, I headed out.
The temperature was still warm, but the sky was slowly filling with dark-centered clouds. Wind flapped my jacket and gusted leaves and pine needles across the gravel road.
This time we did the uphill lap first, Boyd charging ahead, huffing and coughing as the collar tightened across his larynx. He raced from tree to tree, sniffing and squirting, while I gazed into the valley below, each of us enjoying the mountain in our own way.
We'd gone perhaps a half mile when Boyd froze and his head shot up. The fur went stiff along his spine, his mouth half opened, and a growl rose from the back of his throat, a sound quite different from the siren display.
“What is it, boy?”
Ignoring my question, the dog lunged, ripping the leash from my grip, and charged into the woods.
I stamped my foot and rubbed my palm.
I could hear him through the trees, barking like he was on scrap yard sentry duty.
“Boyd, come back here!”
The barking continued.
Cursing at least one creature that creepeth, I left the road and followed the noise. I found him ten yards in, dashing back and forth, yapping at the base of a white oak.
He continued running, barking, and snapping at the oak.
He skidded to a stop and looked in my direction.
Dogs have fixed facial musculature, making them incapable of expression. They cannot smile, frown, grimace, or sneer. Nevertheless, Boyd's eyebrows made a movement that clearly communicated his disbelief.
Are you crazy?
“Boyd, sit!” I pointed a finger and held it on him.
He looked at the oak, back at me, then sat. Never lowering the finger, I picked my way to him and regained the leash.
“Come on, dog breath,” I said, patting his head, then tugging him toward the road.
Boyd twisted and yipped at the oak, then turned back and did the eyebrow thing.
“What is it?”
Rrrrup. Rup. Rup.
“O.K. Show me.”
I gave him some leash, and he dragged me toward the tree. Two feet from it, he barked and whipped around, eyes shining with excitement. I parted the vegetation with a boot.
A dead squirrel lay among the sow thistle, orbits empty, brown tissue sheathing its bones like a dark, leathery shroud.
I looked at the dog.
“Is this what's got your fur in a twist?”
He dropped on front paws, rump in the air, then rose and took two hops backward.
“It's dead, Boyd.”
The head cocked, and the eyebrow hairs rotated.
“Let's go, mighty tracker.”
The rest of the walk was uneventful. Boyd found no more corpses, and we clocked a much better time on the downhill run. Rounding the last curve I was surprised to see a cruiser parked under the trees at High Ridge House, a Swain County Sheriff 's Department shield on its side.
Lucy Crowe stood on the front steps, a Dr Pepper in one hand, Smokey hat in the other. Boyd went right to her, tail wagging, tongue drooping like a purple eel. The sheriff set her hat on the railing and ruffled the dog's fur. He nuzzled and licked her hand, then curled on the porch, chin on forepaws, and closed his eyes. Boyd the Deadly.
“Nice dog,” said Crowe, wiping a hand on the seat of her pants.
“I'm minding him for a few days.”
“Dogs are good company.”
Obviously, she'd never spent time with Boyd.
“I had a talk with the Wahnetah family. Daniel still hasn't returned.”
I waited while she sipped her soda.
“They say he stood about five-seven.”
“Did he complain about his feet?”
“Apparently he never complained about anything. Didn't talk much at all, liked to be alone. But here's an interesting sidebar. One of Daniel's campsites was out at Running Goat Branch.”
“Where's Running Goat Branch?”
“Spit and a half from your walled enclosure.”
“Was he there when he went missing?”
“The family wasn't sure, but that was the first place they checked.”
“I've got another sidebar,” I said, my excitement growing.
I told her about the discriminant function classification placing the foot bones closest to those of Native Americans.
“Now can you get a warrant?” I asked.
“Based on what?”
I ticked off points by raising fingers.
“An elderly Native American went missing in your county. I have a body part fitting that profile. This body part was recovered in proximity to a location frequented by your missing person.”
She cocked an eyebrow, then did her own ticking.
“A body part that might or might not be related to an aviation disaster. An old man who might or might not be dead. A property that might or might not be implicated in either situation.”
The hunch of an anthropologist who might or might not be the spawn of Satan. I didn't say it.
“Let's at least go to his camp and look around,” I pushed.
She thought a moment, then looked at her watch.
“That I can do.”
“Give me five minutes.” I gestured at Boyd.
“Come on, boy.”
The head came up and the eyebrows puckered.
A ping in my mind. The dead squirrel. My line of work makes me unusually sensitive to the smell of putrefaction, yet I hadn't detected a trace. Boyd went ballistic at ten yards.
“Could the dog ride along?” I asked. “He's not cadaver-trained, but he's pretty good at sniffing out carrion.”
“He sits in back.”
I opened the door and whistled. Boyd bounded over and leaped in.
Eleven days had passed since the Air TransSouth crash. All remains had been taken to the morgue, and the last of the wreckage was being hauled down the mountain. The recovery operation was winding down, and the change was evident.
The county road was now open, though a sheriff 's deputy protected the entrance to the Forest Service road. The families and press were gone, and only a handful of vehicles occupied the overlook holding area.
Crowe cut the engine where the road ended, about a half mile beyond the cutoff to the crash site. A large granite outcropping lay to the right. Clipping a radio to her belt, she crossed the gravel track and walked the uphill side, carefully studying the tree line.
I leashed Boyd and followed, keeping him as close to me as I could. After a full five minutes the sheriff cut left and disappeared up the embankment into the trees. I gave Boyd his head, and was dragged along in her wake.
The land climbed steeply, leveled off, then shot downward into a valley. As we moved farther and farther from the road, the trees closed around us, and everything started to look the same. But the landmarks given by the Wahnetah family made sense to the sheriff. She found the path they'd described, and from it a small dirt road. I couldn't tell if it was the same logging trail that passed by the wreckage field or another similar to it.
It took Crowe forty minutes to locate Daniel's cabin, set among beech and pine at the edge of a small creek. I probably would have walked right past it.
The camp looked as though it had been thrown up in an afternoon. The shack was wood, the floor dirt, the roof corrugated tin, extended in front to provide shelter for a makeshift bench beside the door. A wooden table and another bench sat to the left front of the shanty, a tree stump to the right. Out back I could see a pile of bottles, cans, tires, and other refuse.
“How do you suppose the tires got here?” I asked.
Gingerly, I cracked the door and stuck my head inside. In the gloom I could make out a cot, an aluminum lawn chair, and a collapsible table holding a rusty camp stove and a collection of plastic dishes and cups. Fishing gear, a bucket, a shovel, and a lantern hung from nails. Kerosene cans lined the floor. That was it.
“Would the old man leave his fishing gear if he planned to move on?”
Lacking a real plan, Crowe and I decided to split up. She searched the creek bank while I walked the surrounding woods. My canine companion sniffed and peed contentedly.
Returning to the shack, I secured Boyd to a table leg, swung the door wide, and propped it with a rock. Inside, the air smelled of mildew, kerosene, and muscatel. Millipedes skittered as I shifted objects, and at one point a daddy longlegs high-stepped up my arm. I found nothing to indicate where Daniel Wahnetah had gone or when he'd left. Or why.
Crowe reappeared as I was poking through the refuse heap. After toeing over dozens of wine bottles, cracker tins, and Dinty Moore beef stew cans, I gave up and picked my way out to join her.
Trees whispered in the wind. Leaves sailed across the ground in a colorful regatta, and a corner of the corrugated tin rose and fell with a scraping sound. Though the air felt dense and heavy, there was movement all around us.
Crowe knew what I was thinking. Without a word she pulled a small spiral-bound atlas from her jacket and flipped through the pages.
“Show me,” she said, handing me the book.
The map she'd chosen was a close-up of the piece of Swain County in which we stood. Using elevation lines, the county road, and the logging trails, I located the crash site. Then I estimated the position of the courtyard house and pointed to it.
Crowe studied the topography around my finger.
“You're sure there's a structure back in there?” I heard doubt in her voice.
“It's less than a mile.”
She nodded, a slower motion than usual.
“There's no road I know of, so we might as well go overland.”
“Can you find it?”
“I can find it.”
We spent an hour threading our way through trees and brush, up one ridge and down another, following a track that was clear to Crowe but invisible to me. Then, at an ancient pine, its trunk knotted and worn, we emerged onto a path that even I could recognize.
We came to a high wall, vaguely familiar from my previous visit. Every sense sharpened as we moved along the mossy stone. A jay cawed, shrill and strident, and my skin seemed to tighten on my body. There was something here. I knew it.
Boyd continued to amble and snuffle, oblivious to my tension. I wrapped the leash around my palm, tightened my grasp.
Within yards, the wall made a ninety-degree turn. Crowe rounded the corner and I followed, my grip so tight I felt my nails dig into my palm.
The trees ended three quarters of the distance up the wall. Crowe stopped at the verge of the woods and Boyd and I caught up.
Ahead and to the left I spotted another walled enclosure, the rock face rising in the distance beyond. I had my bearings. We'd approached from the rear of the property; the house lay ahead of us, its back to the escarpment. The wall we'd been skirting surrounded a larger area I hadn't noted on my first visit. The courtyard was within the larger enclosure.
“I'll be damned.” Crowe reached down and released the safety on her gun.
She called out as I had done. Called again.
Eyes and ears alert, we proceeded to the house and climbed the steps. The shutters were still closed, the windows still draped. I was gripped by the same sense of foreboding as on my first visit.
Crowe stepped to the side of the door and gestured with an arm. When Boyd and I had moved behind her, she knocked. Still no answer.
She knocked again, identified herself. Silence.
Crowe raised her eyes and looked around.
“No phone lines. No power lines.”
“Cell phone and generator.”
“Could be. Or the place could be deserted.”
“Do you want to see the courtyard?”
“Not without a warrant I don't.”
“No warrant, no entry.” She looked at me, her eyes unblinking. “Let's go. I'll buy you a Dr Pepper.”
At that moment, a light rain began to fall. I listened to drops tick softly on the porch roof, frustration seething in me. She was right. It was nothing but a hunch. But every cell in my being was telling me that something important lay close at hand. Something evil.
“Could I run Boyd around the property, see if he has any thoughts?”
“Keep him outside the walls, I've got no objection. I'll check for vehicular access. If folks are coming here, they must be driving.”
For fifteen minutes Boyd and I crisscrossed the brush to the west of the house, much as I had on my first trip. The dog showed no reaction. Though I was beginning to suspect the squirrel hit had been a fluke, I decided to make one last sweep, skirting the edge of the forest up to its terminus at the second enclosure. This would be virgin territory.
We were twenty feet from the wall when Boyd's head snapped up. His body tensed, and the hair prickled along his back. He rotated his snout, testing the air, then growled in a way I'd heard only once, deep and feral and vicious. Then he lunged, choking and barking as though possessed.
I staggered, barely able to hold him.
Spreading my feet, I grabbed the leash with both hands. The dog continued to pull, muscles straining, forefeet scrabbling inches above the ground.
“What is it, boy?”
We both knew.
I hesitated, heart pounding. Then I unwrapped the leash and let it fall.
Boyd flew to the wall and exploded in a frenzy of barking, approximately six feet south of the back corner. I could see that the mortar was crumbling at that point, and that a dozen stones had tumbled free, leaving a gap between the ground and the wall's foundation.
I ran to the dog, crouched at his shoulder, and inspected the gap. The soil was moist and discolored. Overturning a fallen stone, I saw a dozen tiny brown objects.
Instantly, I knew what Boyd had found.