I STARED, FIRST IN CONFUSION, THEN IN DAWNING COMPREHENSION.
Ryan had given me a composite produced on a color printer. There were three images, each showing a fragment of plastic. In the first I could make out the letters b-i-o-h-a-z. In the second, a truncated phrase: -aboratory servic-. A red symbol practically leaped from the third picture. I'd seen dozens at the lab, and recognized it instantly.
I looked at Ryan.
“It's a biohazard container.”
“Which wasn't on the manifest.”
“And everyone thinks it held a foot.”
“Opinion is running in that direction.”
Boyd nudged my hand, and I absently held out the rest of the sandwich. He looked at me, as though assuring himself there was no mistake, then took the booty and moved off, opting for distance in case it was a misunderstanding, after all.
“So they're admitting that the foot does not belong to any passenger.”
“Not exactly. But they're opening up to the possibility.”
“What does this do to the warrant?” I asked Crowe.
“It won't help.”
She pushed back from the step, stood with feet apart, and replaced her hat.
“But something's reeking under that wall, and I intend to find out what.”
She gave her Sheriff Crowe head dip, turned, and walked up the path. Moments later we saw her bubble top wending down the mountain.
I felt Ryan's stare and brought my gaze back to him.
“Why did the magistrate nix the warrant?”
“Apparently the guy's a candidate for the Flat Earth Society. On top of that, he'll issue a warrant for obstruction if I so much as shed a skin cell.” My cheeks burned with anger.
Boyd crossed the porch, snout down, head moving from side to side. Reaching the swing, he sniffed up my leg, then sat and stared at me with his tongue out.
Ryan drew on his cigarette, flicked it onto the lawn. Boyd's eyes shifted sideways, then back to me.
“Did you find out about H&F?”
Ryan had gone to his “office” to phone Delaware.
“I thought the request might be processed more expeditiously if it came from the FBI, so I asked McMahon to make the call. I'll be at the reassembly site all afternoon but I can ask him tonight.”
Reassembly. The piecing together of the airplane as it had been before the event. Total reassembly is a tremendous drain on time, money, and manpower, of which the NTSB had precious little. They do not attempt it in every major, do so reluctantly when public clamor demands. They undertook it with TWA 800 because the Brits had done it with Pan Am 102, and they didn't want to be outperformed.
With fifty dead students, reassembly was a given.
For the past two weeks trucks had been carrying the wreckage from Air TransSouth 228 across the mountains to a rented hangar at the Asheville airport. Parts were being laid out on grids corresponding to their positions on the Fokker-100. Parts that could not be associated with specific sections of the plane were being sorted according to structure type. Unidentifiable parts were being sorted according to position of recovery at the crash site.
Eventually, every scrap would be cataloged and subjected to a range of tests, then reassembled around a wood-and-wire frame. Over time an aircraft would take shape, like a slow-motion reverse, with a million fragments drawing together to form a recognizable object.
I'd visited reassembly sites on other crashes, and could picture the tedious scene. In this case the process would move more quickly since Air TransSouth 228 had not been driven into the ground. The plane had come apart in midair and plummeted to earth in large pieces.
But I would not see it. I was exiled. My face must have registered my despondency.
“I can put off the meeting.” Ryan laid a hand on my shoulder.
“What are you going to do this afternon?”
“I'm going to sit here and finish my lunch with Boyd. Then I'm going to drive into town and buy dog food, razors, and shampoo.”
“Will you be all right?”
“I may have trouble finding the ones with double blades. But I'll persevere.”
“You can be a pain in the ass, Brennan.”
“See. I'm fine.”
I managed a weak smile.
“Go to your meeting.”
When he'd gone, I gave Boyd the last of the fries.
“Any preferred brands?” I asked.
He didn't answer.
I suspected Boyd would eat just about anything but boiled eggs.
I was stuffing wrappers into the carry-out bag when Ruby shot out the front door and grabbed my arm.
“Quick! Come quick!”
She dragged me off the swing and into the house. Boyd danced along, nipping at my jeans. I wasn't sure if it was Ruby's urgency that excited him or his entry onto forbidden turf.
Ruby pulled me straight to the kitchen, where an ironing board stood with a pair of Levi's draped across it. A wicker basket rested below, heaped to the rim with crumpled laundry. Neatly pressed garments hung from cabinet knobs around the room.
Ruby pointed to a twelve-inch black-and-white TV on a counter opposite the board. A ribbon at the bottom of the screen announced fast-breaking news. A newscaster spoke above the graphic, his face grim, his voice serene. Though reception was poor, I had no trouble identifying the figure over his left shoulder.
The room receded around me. I was aware of nothing but the voice and the snowy picture.
“... an inside source revealed that the anthropologist has been dismissed, and that an investigation is under way. Charges have not yet been filed, and it is unclear if the crash investigation has been compromised, or if victim identifications have been affected. When contacted, Dr. Larke Tyrell, North Carolina's chief medical examiner, had no comment. In other news...”
“That's you, isn't it?”
Ruby brought me back.
“Yes,” I said.
Boyd had stopped racing around the kitchen and was sniffing the floor below the sink. His head came up when I spoke.
“What's he saying?” Ruby's eyes were the size of Frisbees.
Something snapped, and I rolled over her like a tsunami.
“It's a mistake! A goddamn mistake!” It was my voice, shrill and harsh, though I hadn't consciously formed the words.
The room felt hot, the smell of steam and fabric softener cloying. I spun and rushed for the door.
Boyd flew after me, paws jumbling the carpet runner as we raced down the hall. I burst out the door and across the lawn, the bell jangling in my wake. Ruby must have thought I was possessed by the Archfiend himself.
When I opened the car Boyd bounded in and centered himself in back, his head protruding through the gap between the seats. I hadn't the will to stop him.
Sliding behind the wheel, I did some deep breathing, hoping to turn a page in my mind. My heartbeat normalized. I began to feel guilty about my outburst, but couldn't force myself to return to the kitchen to apologize.
Boyd chose that moment to lick my ear.
At least the chow doesn't question my integrity, I thought.
* * *
During the ride into Bryson City, I answered call after call on my cell phone, each a reporter. After seven “no comments,” I turned it off.
Boyd shifted between his center spot and the left rear window, reacting with the same low growl to cars, pedestrians, and other animals. After a time he ceased serving notice on everyone of just who he was, and stared placidly as the sights and sounds of the mountains flashed by.
I found everything I needed at an Ingles supermarket on the southern edge of town. Herbal Essence and Gillette Good News for me, Kibbles 'n Bits for Boyd. I even sprang for a box of Milk-Bone jumbos.
Buoyed by finding the razors, I decided on an outing.
Approximately three miles beyond the Bryson City line, Everett Street becomes a scenic roadway that snakes through the Great Smoky Mountains National Park above the north shore of Lake Fontana. Officially the highway is called Lakeview Drive. To locals it is known as the Road to Nowhere.
In the 1940s, a two-lane blacktop led from Bryson City along the Tuckasegee and Little Tennessee Rivers to Deal's Gap near the Tennessee state line. Realizing the creation of Lake Fontana would flood the highway, the TVA promised a new north-shore road. Construction began in 1943, and a 1,200-foot tunnel was eventually built. Then everything stopped, leaving Swain County with a road and tunnel to nowhere, and with wounded feelings as to its low rank in the universal order of things.
“Want to take a ride, boy?”
Boyd showed enthusiasm by placing his chin on my right shoulder and running his tongue up the side of my face. One thing I admired about him was his agreeable nature.
The drive was beautiful, the tunnel a perfect monument to federal folly. Boyd enjoyed racing from end to end while I stood in the middle and watched.
Though the outing cheered me, the improvement in my mood was short-lived. Just after leaving the park, my engine gave an odd ping. Two miles before the town line it pinged again, chunked repeatedly, then segued into a loud, ratchety, persistent noise.
Veering onto the shoulder, I cut the motor, draped my arms around the steering wheel, and rested my forehead on them, my temporary lift in spirits replaced by a sense of despondency and anxiety.
Was this ordinary car trouble, or had someone tampered with my engine?
Boyd laid his chin on my shoulder, indicating that he, too, found it a disturbing question, and not entirely paranoid.
We'd been like that a few minutes when Boyd growled without raising his head. I ignored this, assuming he'd spotted a squirrel or a Chevy. Then he shot to his feet and gave three sharp woofs, an impressive sound inside a Mazda.
I looked up to see a man approaching my car from the highway side. He was small, maybe five foot three, with dark hair combed straight back. He wore a black suit, perfectly fitted, but probably new in the early sixties.
Drawing close, the man raised knuckles to tap the glass, but pulled back as Boyd erupted again.
I could see an old pickup angled onto the shoulder across the road, the driver's door open. The truck looked empty.
“Let's see what the gentleman has to say.”
I cracked my window.
“Are you ill, ma'am?” The voice was rich and resonant, seeming to come from deeper inside than the small stature allowed. The man had a hooked nose and intense dark eyes, and reminded me of someone, though I couldn't recall whom. From his tone I could tell Boyd was thinking Caligula.
“I may have thrown a rod.” I had no idea what that meant, but it seemed like an engine noise sort of thing to say.
“May I offer assistance?”
Boyd growled suspiciously.
“I'm on my way into town. It would be no trouble to drop you at a repair shop, ma'am.”
Sudden synapse. The man looked and sounded like a miniature Johnny Cash.
“If there's a garage you can recommend, I'll call ahead and ask for a tow.”
“Yes, of course. There's one right up the road. I have the number in my glove compartment.”
Boyd was having none of it.
“Shh.” I reached back and stroked his head.
The man crossed to his truck, rummaged, then returned with a slip of thin yellow paper. Holding my cell phone in clear view, I lowered the window another few inches and accepted it.
The form looked like the carbon copy of a repair bill. The writing was almost illegible, but a header identified the garage as P & T Auto Repair, and gave an address and phone number in Bryson City. I tried to make out the customer signature, but the ink was too smeary.
When I turned on my cell, the screen told me I had missed eleven calls. Scrolling through, I recognized none of the numbers. I dialed the auto repair shop.
When the phone was answered I explained my situation and asked for towing.
How would I be paying?
Where are you?
I gave the location.
Can you find transportation?
Come on in and leave the car. They'd send a truck within the hour.
I told the voice at the other end that P & T had been recommended by a passerby, and that I would be riding to the garage with this man. Then I read off the bill number, hoping that P or T was writing it down.
With that call completed, I lowered the window, smiled at Johnny Cash, and dialed again. Speaking loudly, I left Lieutenant-Detective Ryan a message, detailing my intended whereabouts. Then I looked at Boyd. He was looking at the man in the dark suit.
Closing the window, I grabbed my purse and the grocery bag.
“How could things possibly get worse?”
Boyd did the eyebrow thing but said nothing.
* * *
Dropping the bag behind the seat, I took the middle position and gave Boyd the window. When our Samaritan slammed the door, the dog stuck his head out and tracked his movement to the driver's side. Then a pickup truck whizzed by with a pair of weimaraners in the bed, and Boyd's interest shifted. When he tried to rise, I pushed down on his haunches.
“That's a fine dog, ma'am.”
“No one's going to bother you with that big fella around.”
“He can be vicious when he's being protective.”
We drove in silence. The phone rang. I checked the number, ignored the call. After a while, my rescuer spoke.
“I saw you on TV, didn't I?”
“I've got trouble with stillness, turn the set on when I'm home alone. I don't pay it much mind, just look up now and again. It's kind of like having company.”
He grinned, acknowledging his own foolishness.
“But I do have a knack for faces. It's mighty useful in my line of work.”
He pointed in my direction. I noticed that the hand was gray and unnaturally smooth, as though the flesh had ballooned, then contracted with only a vague memory of its original form.
“I'm sure I saw you today.” The hand returned to the steering wheel. The hawk eyes shifted from the road to me and back again. “You're with the air crash investigation.”
I smiled. Either he hadn't listened to the story, or he was being polite.
The hand came toward me.
We shook. His grip was steel.
“That's a powerful name, young lady.”
“Are you anti-saloon?”
“I am among those who see intoxicating liquor as the main cause of crime, poverty, and violence in this great nation. Fermented liquor is the greatest threat to the nuclear family ever spawned by Lucifer.” He pronounced it nucular.
The name Bowman suddenly clicked.
“Are you Luke Bowman?”
“The Reverend Luke Bowman?”
“You've heard of me?”
“I'm staying with Ruby McCready at High Ridge House.” It was irrelevant but seemed safe.
“Sister McCready is not one of my flock, but she's a good woman. Keeps a fine Christian house.”
“Is there a Mr. McCready?” I'd been curious for some time but had never asked.
Now the eyes remained on the road. Seconds passed. I thought he wasn't going to answer.
“I'm gonna leave that question alone, ma'am. Best to let Sister McCready tell the tale as she sees fit.”
Ruby had a tale?
“What's the name of your church?”
“The Eternal Light Holiness-Pentecostal House of God.”
The southern Appalachians are home to a fundamentalist Christian sect known as the Church of God with Signs Following, or the Holiness Church. Inspired by biblical passages, adherents seek the power of the Holy Ghost by repenting their sins and leading godly lives. Only thus is one anointed, and thereby able to follow the signs. These signs include speaking in tongues, casting out demons, healing the sick, handling serpents, and ingesting toxic substances.
In more populated areas preachers establish permanent congregations. Elsewhere, they work a circuit. Services last hours, the centerpiece sometimes being the drinking of strychnine and the handling of poisonous snakes. Preachers accumulate fame and followers based on their oratorical skills and immunity to venom. Each year someone dies.
The distorted hand now made sense. Bowman had been bitten more than once.
Bowman turned left a few blocks past the supermarket where I'd made my purchases, then right onto a rutted side street. P & T Auto Repair was situated between businesses offering glass replacement and small-appliance repair. The reverend pulled in and cut the engine.
The garage was a blue aluminum-sided rectangle with an office at one end. Through the open door I made out a cash register, counter, and trio of heads in dozer caps.
The other end of the building held a work bay in which a battered Chevy station wagon was pedestaled on a hydraulic lift, its doors flung wide. The car looked as though it were taking flight.
An old Pinto and two pickups were parked outside the office. I did not see a tow truck.
As Bowman got out, Boyd began what I knew was not a Pinto growl. Following his line of vision I spotted a black-and-brown dog lying inside the office door. It looked pure pit bull.
The flesh on Boyd's snout compressed against his gums. His body tensed. The growl deepened.
Damn. Why hadn't I brought the leash?
Wrapping my fingers around Boyd's collar, I opened the door and we both jumped down. Bowman met us with a length of rope.
“Had this in back,” he said. “Flush can be peevish.”
I thanked him and tied the rope to Boyd's collar. Boyd remained focused on the other dog.
“I'd be glad to hold him while you talk with the mechanic.”
I looked at Boyd. He was staring fixedly at Flush, thinking flank steak.
“Thanks. That might be wise.”
Crossing the lot, I stepped through the door and circled Flush. An ear twitched, but he didn't look up. Maybe pit bulls are calm because they are secure in the belief that they can kill anyone or anything that provokes them. I hoped Boyd would keep quiet and keep his distance.
The office had the usual tasteful garage appointments. A calendar with a photo of the Grand Canyon and tear-off sheets for each month. A cigarette machine. A glass case containing flashlights, maps, and an assortment of automotive paraphernalia. Three kitchen chairs. A pit bull.
A pair of geezers occupied two of the chairs. In the third sat a middle-aged man in an oil-stained work shirt and pants. The men stopped talking when I entered, but no one rose.
Assuming the younger man was either P or T, I introduced myself and asked about the tow.
He answered that the wrecker was on its way, should be back in twenty minutes. He'd look at my car as soon as he finished the Chevy.
How long would that be?
He couldn't say, but offered me the chair if I wanted to wait.
The air inside was packed tight with smells. Gas, oil, cigarette smoke, geezers, dog. I elected to wait outside.
Returning to Luke Bowman, I thanked him for his kindness and reclaimed my dog. Boyd was straining at his collar, every fiber focused on the pit bull. Flush was either sleeping or playing possum, waiting for the chow to approach.
“You'll be all right by yourself?”
“My car will be here any minute. And there's a detective on his way over. If it's going to take long he can give me a lift back to High Ridge House. But thank you again. You've been a lifesaver.”
My phone rang again. I checked the number, ignored the call. Bowman watched. He seemed reluctant to leave.
“Sister McCready is housing quite a few crash investigation folks up there, i'n't she?”
“Some are there.”
“That air crash is nasty business.” He pinched his nostrils then shook his head.
I said nothing.
“Do they have any idea what brought that plane down?”
He must have seen something in my face.
“You didn't hear my name from Ruby McCready, did you, Miss Temperance?”
“It came up in a briefing.”
“Lord God Almighty.”
The dark eyes seemed to grow darker for an instant. Then he dropped his chin, reached up, and massaged his temples.
“I've sinned, and my Savior wants confession.”
When Bowman looked back up his eyes were moist. His voice cracked as he spoke the next sentence.
“And the Lord God sent you to bear witness.”