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Chapter 14

WHEN I CAME DOWNSTAIRS THE NEXT MORNING, R YAN WAS questioning Ruby about my intruder. Byron McMahon sat across from him, dividing his attention between the interrogation and a trio of fried eggs.

Ruby had one comment.

“Satan's minions are among us.”

I was annoyed by her nonchalance toward the rifling of my possessions, but let it go.

“Was anything taken?” asked McMahon. Good. The FBI was on my case.

“I don't think so.”

“Been irritating someone?”

“I suspect my dog has. Dogs bark.” I described what had been done to Annie and Sandy.

Ryan looked at me oddly but said nothing.

“This place isn't exactly Los Alamos. Anyone could walk in and out of here.” McMahon forked up fried potatoes. “What else have you been up to lately? I haven't seen you around.”

I told him about the foot and the courtyard house, ending with the VFA profile I'd gotten the day before. I did not tell him about my current status in the crash investigation, but left that gap for him to fill. As I spoke, his grin slowly dissolved.

“So Crowe is going for a warrant?” he asked, cop cool.

I was about to answer when my cell phone sounded the William Tell Overture. The men looked at each other as I clicked it on.

The call was from Laslo Sparkes at Oak Ridge. I listened, thanked him, and rang off.

“Rossini calling?” Ryan asked.

“I was testing the ring options and forgot to change it back.” I jabbed my egg and yolk spurted onto the table. “I wouldn't have pegged you as an opera buff.”

“Zinger.” McMahon reached for a slice of toast.

“It was the anthropologist at Oak Ridge.”

“Let me guess. He's profiled the soup, and the missing body is D. B. Cooper.”

Ryan was on a roll. Ignoring him, I directed my response to McMahon.

“He found something while filtering the remaining soil.”

“What's that?”

“He didn't say. Just that the item might be useful. He's going to stop by Bryson City sometime later in the week on his way to Asheville.”

Ruby returned, cleared plates, left.

“So you're off to the courthouse?” Ryan.

“Yes.” Terse.

“Sounds like detecting.”

“Somebody's got to do it.”

“It can't hurt to know who owns that property.” McMahon drained his cup. “After today's briefing I have to shoot down to Charlotte to interview some asswipe claiming to have information about a militia group up here in Swain. Otherwise, I'd tag along.”

He drew a card from his wallet and placed it in front of me.

“If they're uncooperative at the courthouse, wave this. Sometimes the acronym induces a mood swing.”

“Thanks.” I pocketed the card.

McMahon excused himself, leaving Ryan and me and three empty mugs.

“Who do you think tossed your room?”

“I don't know.”


“They were looking for your shower gel.”

“I wouldn't belittle this. How about I poke around, ask a few questions?”

“You know that'd be a journey into pointlessness. These things are never solved.”

“It would let folks know that someone is curious.”

“I'll talk with Crowe.”

I rose to leave and he took my arm.

“Do you want backup at the courthouse?”

“In case of an armed attack by the recorder of deeds?”

He looked away, back at me.

“Would you like company at the courthouse?”

“Aren't you going to the NTSB briefing?”

“McMahon can fill me in. But there's one condition.”

I waited.

“Change your phone.”

“Hi-Ho, Silver,” I said.

The Swain County Administration Building and Courthouse replaced its predecessor in 1982. It is a rectangular concrete building, with a low-angled roof of red galvanized metal, that sits on the bank of the Tuckasegee River. Though lacking the charm of the old domed courthouse at Everett and Main, the structure is bright, clean, and efficient.

The tax office is located on the ground floor, immediately off a tiled octagonal lobby. When Ryan and I entered, four women looked up from computers, two behind a counter directly ahead, two behind a counter to our left.

I explained what we wanted. Woman number three pointed to a door at the back of the room.

“Land Records Department,” she said.

Eight eyes traveled with us across the floor.

“Must be where they archive the classified stuff,” Ryan whispered as I opened the door.

We entered to find another counter, this one guarded by a tall, thin woman with an angular face. It brought to mind my father's old picture of Stan Musial.

“May I help you?”

“We'd like to look at the county tax index map.”

The woman put a hand to her mouth, as though the question startled her.

“The tax map?”

I began to suspect my request was a first. Taking Byron McMahon's card from my pocket, I walked to the counter and handed it to her.

Madam Musial eyeballed the card. “Is this, like, the actual FBI?”

When she looked up, I nodded.


“It's a family name.” I smiled winningly.

“Do you have a gun?”

“Not here.” Not anywhere, but that would tarnish the image.

“Does this have to do with the airplane crash?”

I leaned close. She smelled of mint and overperfumed shampoo. “What we're looking for could be critical to the investigation.”

Behind me, I heard Ryan's feet shift.

“My name is Dorothy.” She handed back the card. “I'll get it.”

Dorothy went to a map case, pulled out a drawer approximately two inches high, withdrew a large sheet, and spread it on the counter.

Ryan and I bent over the map. Using township boundaries, roads, and other markers, we pinpointed the section containing the courtyard house. Dorothy observed from her side of the divide, vigilant as an Egyptologist displaying a papyrus.

“Now we'd like section map six-two-one, please.”

Dorothy smiled to indicate she was part of the sting, went to another case, and returned with the document.

Earlier in my career as an anthropologist, when I had done some archaeology, I'd spent hours with U.S. Geological Survey maps and knew how to interpret symbols and features. The experience came in handy. Using elevations, creeks, and roads, Ryan and I were able to zero in on the house.

“Section map six twenty-one, parcel four.”

Keeping my finger on the spot, I looked up. Dorothy's face was inches from mine.

“How long will it take to pull up the tax records for this property?”

“About a minute.”

I must have looked surprised.

“Swain County is not a pumpkin patch. We are computerized.”

Dorothy went to a rear corner in her “secure” area and lifted a plastic cover from a monitor and keyboard. Ryan and I waited as she fastidiously folded the plastic, placed it on an overhead shelf, and booted the computer. When the program was up and running she keyed in a number of commands. Seconds passed. Finally, she entered the tax number and the screen filled with information.

“Do you want hard copy?”


She unveiled a Hewlett-Packard bubble-jet printer similar to the first one I'd ever owned. Again we waited while she folded and stored the plastic cover, took one sheet of paper from a drawer, and placed it in the feeder tray.

Finally, she hit a key, the printer whirred, and the paper disappeared then oozed out.

“I hope this helps,” she said, handing it to me.

The printout gave a vague description of the property and its buildings, its assessed value, the owner's name and mailing address, and the address to which the tax bills were being sent.

I passed it to Ryan, feeling deflated.

“‘H&F Investment Group, LLP,’” he read aloud. “The mailing address is a PO box in New York.”

He looked at me.

“Who the hell is the H&F Investment Group?”

I shrugged.

“What's LLP?”

“Limited liability partnership,” I said.

“You could try the deed room.”

We both turned to Dorothy. A touch of pink had sprouted on each cheek.

“You could look up the date that H&F bought the property, and the name of the previous owner.”

“They'd have that?”

She nodded.

We found the register of deeds around the corner from the tax office. The records room was situated behind the obligatory counter, through a set of slatted swinging doors. Shelves lining the walls and filling free-standing cases held deed books spanning hundreds of years. Recent ones were square and red, their numbers stated in plain gold lettering. Older volumes were ornately decorated, like leatherbound volumes of first editions.

It was like a treasure hunt, with each deed sending us backward in time. We learned the following:

The H&F Investment Group was an LLP registered in Delaware. Ownership of tax parcel number four transferred to the partnership in 1949 from one Edward E. Arthur. The description of the property was charming, but a bit loose by modern standards. I read it aloud to Ryan.

“‘The property begins at a Spanish oak on a knob, the corner of state grant 11807, and runs north ninety poles to the Bellingford line, then up the ridge as it meanders with Bellingford's line to a chestnut in the line of the S. Q. Barker tract—’”

“Where did Arthur get it?”

I skipped the rest of the survey and read on.

“Do you want to hear the ‘party of the first part’ bits?”


“‘... having the same land conveyed by deed from Victor T. Livingstone and wife J. E. Clampett, dated March 26, 1933, and recorded in Deed Book number 52, page 315, Records of Swain County, North Carolina.’”

I went to the shelf and pulled the older volume.

Arthur had obtained the property from one Victor T. Livingstone in 1933. Livingstone must have purchased it from God, since there were no records before that time.

“At least we know how the happy homeowners got in and out.”

The Livingstone and Arthur deeds both described an entrance road.

“Or get in and out.” I was still not convinced the property was abandoned. “While we were there Crowe found a track leading from the house to a logging trail. The turnoff at the trail is obscured by a makeshift gate completely overgrown with kudzu. When she showed me the entrance I couldn't believe it. You could walk or drive past it a million times without ever seeing it.”

Ryan said nothing.

“Now what?”

“Now we wait for Crowe's warrant.”

“And in the meantime?”

Ryan grinned, and his eyes crinkled at the corners.

“In the meantime we talk to the attorney general of the great state of Delaware, find out what we can about the H&F Investment Group.”

Boyd and I were sharing a club sandwich and fries on the porch at High Ridge House when Lucy Crowe's squad car appeared on the road below. I watched her wind upward toward the driveway. Boyd continued to watch the sandwich.

“Spending quality time?” Crowe asked when she'd reached the stairs.

“He says I've been neglecting him.”

I held out a slice of ham. Boyd tipped his head and took it gently with his front teeth. Then he lowered his snout, dropped the ham on the porch, licked it twice, and wolfed it down. In seconds his chin was back on my knee.

“They're just like kids.”

“Mmm. Did you get the warrant?”

Boyd's eyes moved as my hand moved, alert for lunch meat or fries.

“I had a real heart-to-heart with the magistrate.”


She sighed and removed her hat.

“He says it's not enough.”

“Evidence of a body?” I was shocked. “Daniel Wahnetah could be decomposing in that courtyard even as we speak.”

“Are you familiar with the term junk science? I am. It was thrown at me at least a dozen times this morning. I think old Frank is going to start his own support group. Junk Science Victims Anonymous.”

“Is the guy an idiot?”

“He's never going to Sweden to collect a prize, but he's usually reasonable.”

Boyd raised his head and blew air through his nose. I put my hand down and he sniffed, then gave it a lick.

“You're neglecting him, again.”

I offered a slice of egg. Boyd dropped it, licked it, sniffed, licked again, then left it on the porch.

“I don't care for egg in club sandwiches, either,” Crowe said to Boyd. The dog moved his ear slightly, to indicate that he'd heard, but kept his eyes on my plate.

“It gets worse,” Crowe went on.

Why not?

“There have been additional complaints.”

“About me?”

She nodded.

“By whom?”

“The magistrate wouldn't share that information. But if you go anywhere near the site, the morgue, or any crash-related record, item, or family member, I am to arrest you for obstruction of justice. That includes this courtyard property.”

“What the hell is going on?” My stomach tightened in anger.

Crowe shrugged. “I'm not sure. But you're out of that investigation.”

“Am I allowed to go to the public library?” I spat.

The sheriff rubbed the back of her neck and rested a boot on the bottom step. Beneath her jacket I could see the bulge of a gun.

“There's something very wrong here, Sheriff.”

“I'm listening.”

“My room was ransacked yesterday.”


I told her about the figurines in the bathtub.

“Not exactly a Hallmark greeting.”

“It's probably that Boyd's annoying someone.” I said it hopefully, but didn't really believe my own words.

Boyd's ears shot forward at the sound of his name. I gave him a slice of bacon.

“Is he a barker?”

“Not really. I asked Ruby if he makes noise when I'm away. She said he howls a bit, but nothing extraordinary.”

“What does Ruby say about it?”

“Satan's minions.”

“Maybe you have something that someone wants.”

“Nothing was taken, though all my files were thrown around. The whole room was trashed.”

“Did you keep notes on this foot?”

“I'd taken them with me to Oak Ridge.”

She looked at me a full five seconds, then nodded her nod.

“Makes that Volvo episode a little more suspect. You watch yourself.”

Oh yes.

Crowe leaned over and brushed off the toe of her boot, then looked at her watch.

“I'll see if I can get the DA to push harder.”

At that moment Ryan's rental car appeared in the valley. The driver's-side window was open and his silhouette looked dark against the car's interior. We watched him climb the mountain and turn into the drive. Moments later he strode up the path, his face looking drawn and tense.

“What is it?”

I heard Crowe's hat brush the top of her thigh.

Ryan hesitated a beat, then, “There's still no sign of Jean's body.”

I could read naked misery in his demeanor. And more. Selfimposed guilt. The conviction that his absence from the partnership had caused Bertrand to be on that plane. Detectives without partners are limited in what they can investigate. That makes them available for courier duty.

“They'll find him,” I said softly.

Ryan let his eyes rove the horizon, his back rigid, his neck muscles tight as twisted ropes. After a full minute, he shook out and lit a cigarette, cupping the flame in both hands.

“How did your afternoon go?” He flicked the match.

I told him about Crowe's meeting with the magistrate.

“Your foot may be a dead issue.”

“What do you mean?”

He blew smoke through his nostrils, then pulled something from his jacket pocket.

“They also found this.”

He unfolded a paper and handed it to me.


@by txiuqw4

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