BACK IN THE TRUCK, IT TOOK L UKE B OWMAN A FULL HALF HOUR to unburden his soul. During that time I had four calls from the media. I finally turned the unit off.
As Bowman talked, the phrase “obstruction of justice” floated through my mind. The rain started again. I watched fat drops wriggle through the windshield film and pockmark puddles in the lot. Boyd lay curled at my feet, persuaded at last that leaving Flush undisturbed was a better plan.
My car arrived, rolling behind the wrecker like sea salvage. Bowman continued his strange narrative.
The station wagon was lowered and moved to join the Pinto and pickups. The man in the oil-stained clothing opened a door and steerpushed my Mazda into the bay. Then he raised the hood and peered under.
Bowman talked on, seeking absolution.
Finally the reverend stopped, his tale finished, a place near his god reestablished. It was then that Ryan swung into the lot.
When Ryan got out of his car, I lowered my window and called out. Crossing to the truck, he leaned down and spread his forearms on my window ledge.
I introduced Bowman.
“We've met.” Moisture glistened like a halo around the perimeter of Ryan's hair.
“The reverend has just relayed an interesting story.”
“Has he?” The iceberg eyes studied Bowman.
“It may translate into something helpful to you, Detective. It may not. But it's God's honest truth.”
“Feeling the devil's riding crop, brother?”
Bowman looked at his watch.
“I'll let this fine lady tell it to you.”
He turned the key and Boyd raised his head. When Ryan stepped back and opened my door, the chow stretched and hopped out, looking slightly annoyed.
“Thank you, again.”
“It was my pleasure.” He looked at Ryan. “You know where to find me.”
I watched the pickup lurch across the lot, its tires shooting spray from the water-filled ruts.
I'd never known Bowman's brand of faith. Why had he told me what he had? Fear? Guilt? A desire to cover his ass? Where were his thoughts now? On eternity? On repentance? On the pork chops he'd defrosted for tonight's dinner?
“What's the status of your car?” Ryan's question brought me back.
“Hold on to Boyd while I go check.”
I ran to the work bay, where P/T was still under my hood. He thought the problem might be a water pump, would know tomorrow. I gave him my cell phone number and told him I was staying with Ruby McCready.
When I returned to the car, Ryan and Boyd were already inside. I joined them, brushing rain from my hair.
“Would a broken water pump make a loud noise?” I asked.
“How come you're back from Asheville so early?”
“Something else came up. Listen, I'm meeting McMahon for dinner. You can entertain us both with Bowman's parable.”
“Let's drop Rinty off first.”
I hoped we weren't going to Injun Joe's.
After settling Boyd at High Ridge House, we drove to the Bryson City Diner. The place was long and narrow like a railroad car. Chrome booths jutted from one side, each with its own condiment tray, napkin holder, and miniature jukebox. A chrome counter ran the length of the other, faced by stools bolted to the floor at precise intervals. Red vinyl upholstery. Plastic-domed cake bins. Coat rack at the door. Rest rooms in back.
I liked the place. No promise of a mountain view or ethnic experience. No confusing acronym. No misspelling for alliterative cuteness. It was a diner and the name said that.
We were early for the dinner crowd, even in the mountains. A few customers sat at the counter, grumbling over the weather or talking about their problems at work. When we entered, most glanced up.
Or were they talking about me? As we moved to the corner booth I felt eyes on my back, sensed nudges directing attention toward me. Was it my imagination?
We'd no sooner sat than a middle-aged woman in a white apron and pink dress approached and issued handwritten menus sheathed in plastic. The name “Cynthia” was embroidered over her left breast.
I chose pot roast. Ryan and McMahon went for meat loaf.
“Iced tea, please. Unsweetened.”
“Same here.” McMahon.
“Lemonade.” Ryan stayed deadpan, but I knew what he was thinking.
Cynthia looked at me a long time after jotting our order, then tucked the pencil above her ear. Circling the counter, she tore off the sheet and pinned it to a wire above the service window.
“Two sixes and a four,” she bellowed, then turned to look at me again.
The paranoia flared anew.
Ryan waited until Cynthia brought drinks, then told McMahon I had a statement from Luke Bowman.
“What the hell were you doing with Bowman?” There was concern in his voice. I wondered if it was there out of worry for my safety, or out of knowledge that meddling in the investigation could get me arrested.
“My car broke down. Bowman gave me a lift. Don't ask me why that inspired the baring of his soul.”
I unsheathed a straw and jammed it into my tea.
“Do you want to hear this?”
“It seems the reverends Bowman and Claiborne have been slugging it out over ministerial boundaries for some time. The Holiness movement isn't what it once was, and the parsons are forced to compete for followers from a dwindling pool. This takes showmanship.”
“Could we back up? We're talking snakes here, right?” Ryan asked.
“What do snakes have to do with holiness?”
This time I did not ignore Ryan's question.
“Holiness followers interpret the Bible literally, and cite specific passages that mandate the handling of snakes.”
“What passages?” Ryan's voice dripped with scorn.
“‘In my name shall they cast out devils; they shall speak with new tongues. They shall take up serpents; and if they drink any deadly thing, it shall not hurt them.’ The Gospel of Mark, chapter sixteen, verses seventeen and eighteen.”
Ryan and I stared at McMahon.
“‘Behold I give unto you the power to tread on serpents and scorpions, and over all the power of the enemy; and nothing by any means shall hurt you.’ Luke, chapter ten, verse nineteen,” McMahon continued.
“How do you know that?” Ryan said.
“We all carry baggage.”
“I thought you trained in engineering.”
Ryan circled back to the reptiles.
“Are the snakes tamed in some way? Are they accustomed to being handled, or have their fangs been pulled, or their venom milked?”
“Apparently not,” McMahon said. “They use diamondbacks and water moccasins caught in the hills. Quite a few handlers have died.”
“Isn't it illegal?”
“Yes,” said McMahon. “But in North Carolina snake handling is merely a misdemeanor, and rarely enforced.”
Cynthia arrived with our meals, left. Ryan and I shook salt and pepper. McMahon covered everything on his plate with gravy.
“Go on, Tempe,” he said.
“I'll try to reconstruct this as best I can.”
I tested a green bean. It was perfect, sweet and greasy after hours of cooking with sugar and bacon fat. God bless Dixie. I had several more.
“Though he denied it in his interview with the NTSB, Bowman was outside his house that day. And he was launching things into the sky.”
I halted for a bite of pot roast. It was equal to the beans.
“But not rockets.”
The men waited while I forked another piece of meat, swallowed. Chewing was hardly necessary.
“This is really good.”
“What was he launching?”
Ryan's fork stopped in midair.
“As in birds?”
I nodded. “It seems the reverend relies on special effects to keep the faithful interested.”
“Sleight of hand?”
“He prefers to think of it as theater for the Lord. Anyway, he says he was experimenting the afternoon Air TransSouth 228 went down.”
Ryan urged me on with a gesture of his fork.
“Bowman was working up a sermon on the Ten Commandments. He planned to wave a clay model of the tablets, and finish with a replay of Moses destroying the originals in anger over the Hebrew people's abandonment of their faith. As a finale, he'd dash the mock-ups to the ground, and admonish the congregation to repent. When they begged forgiveness, he'd hit a couple of levers and a flock of doves would rise up in a cloud of smoke. He thought it would be effective.”
“Mind-blowing,” said Ryan.
“So that's his tell-all tabloid confession? He was in the backyard playing with pigeons and smoke?” said McMahon.
“That's his story.”
“Does he do this type of thing regularly?”
“He likes spectacle.”
“And he lied when questioned because he couldn't risk his parishioners finding out they were being duped?”
“So he says. But then the Almighty tapped him on the shoulder, and he began to fear the loss of his soul.”
“Or fear a bump in federal prison.” Ryan's scorn had increased.
I finished my green beans.
“It actually makes sense,” McMahon said. “The other witnesses, including Claiborne, stated they saw something shoot into the sky. Knowing the reliably unreliable nature of eyewitnesses, pigeons and smoke would tally.”
“Doves,” I corrected. “They're more papal.”
“The NTSB has pretty much ruled out the rocket theory, anyway,” McMahon went on.
“For a number of reasons.”
“Give me one.”
“There's not been a single trace of a missile found anywhere within a five-mile radius of the wreckage field.”
McMahon spread mashed potatoes on a forkful of meat loaf.
“And there's no twinning.”
“Basically, it involves cracking in the crystalline structure of metals such as copper, iron, or steel. Twinning requires forces greater than eight thousand meters per second. Typically, that means a military explosive. Things like RDC or C4.”
“And twinning is absent?”
“The usual components of pipe bombs, things like gunpowder, gelignites, and low-strength dynamite, aren't powerful enough. They only reach forces of one thousand meters per second. That doesn't create enough shock to produce twinning, but it's plenty of force to cause havoc on an aircraft. So lack of twinning doesn't rule out a detonation.” He emptied the fork. “And there's plenty of evidence of an explosion.”
At that moment Ryan's cell phone rang. He listened, and replied in clipped French. Though I understood his words, they made little sense without the benefit of the Quebec end of the conversation.
“So the NTSB isn't much further ahead than it was last week. Something blew inside the rear of the plane, but they have no idea what or why.”
“That's about it,” McMahon agreed. “Though the rich husband has been ruled out as a suspect. Turns out the guy was a candidate for priesthood. Made a quarter-million-dollar donation to the Humane Society last year when they found his lost cat.”
“And the Sri Lankan kid?”
“The uncle is still broadcasting in Sri Lanka, and there have been no threats, notes, public statements, nothing from anyone over there. That angle looks like a dead end, but we're still checking.”
“Has the investigation been handed over to the FBI?”
“Not officially. But until terrorism is ruled out, we're not going away.”
Ryan ended his phone conversation and fumbled for a cigarette. His face was fixed in an expression I couldn't read. Remembering my Danielle blunder, I didn't ask.
McMahon had no such compunction.
After a pause, “Pepper Petricelli's wife is missing.”
“She took off?”
Ryan lit up, then scanned the table for an ashtray. Finding none, he jammed the match into his sweet potato pudding. There was an awkward silence before he continued.
“A crackhead named André Metraux was busted for possession yesterday in Montreal. Being unenthused about a long separation from his pharmaceuticals, Metraux offered to flip for consideration.”
Ryan drew deeply, then blew smoke through both nostrils.
“Metraux swears he saw Pepper Petricelli at a steak house in Plattsburgh, New York, last Saturday night.”
“That's impossible,” I burst out. “Petricelli is dead....” My voice trailed off on the last word.
Ryan's eyes did a long sweep of the diner, then came back to rest on mine. In them I saw pure agony.
“Four passengers remain unidentified, including Bertrand and Petricelli.”
“They don't think— Oh, my God, what do they think?”
Ryan and McMahon exchanged glances. My heartbeat quickened.
“What is it you're not telling me?”
“Don't go schizoid. We're not keeping things from you. You've had a rough day, and we thought it could wait until tomorrow.”
I felt anger coalesce like fog inside my chest.
“Tell me,” I said evenly.
“Tyrell attended the briefing today to present an updated trauma chart.”
I felt miserable at being excluded, and lashed out. “ There's a news story.”
“He says he has remains that don't fit anyone on the manifest.”
I stared at him, too surprised to speak.
“Only four passengers remain missing. All were in the left rear of the plane. Their seats were pretty much pulverized, so it's to be expected the occupants did not fare well.”
Ryan drew on his cigarette again, exhaled.
“Twenty-two A and B were occupied by male students. Bertrand and Petricelli were behind them in row twenty-three. Tyrell claims to have tissue fitting none of the eighty-four passengers already identified, and none of these four.”
“A shoulder fragment with a large tattoo.”
“Someone could have gotten a tattoo right before the flight.”
“A portion of jaw with elaborate bridgework.”
“Fingerprints,” McMahon added.
I took a moment to digest this.
“What does it mean?”
“It could mean a lot of things.”
McMahon caught Cynthia's eye and signaled for the check.
“Maybe the biker boys got a stand-in and Petricelli really was enjoying a porterhouse in New York last weekend.” Ryan's voice was tempered steel.
“What are you implying?”
“If Petricelli wasn't on that plane it means one of two things. Either Bertrand was persuaded by greed or force to make a career change...”
Ryan took one last pull and added his butt to the sweet potatoes.
“... or Bertrand was murdered.”
* * *
Back in my room, I treated myself to a long hot bubble bath, followed by a talcum powder chaser. Only slightly relaxed, but smelling of honeysuckle and lilac, I propped myself in bed, raised my knees to my chest, pulled up the blankets, and turned on my phone. I'd missed seventeen calls. Finding no familiar numbers, I dumped the messages and made a call I'd been putting off.
Though fall break had ended and university classes had resumed the day before, I'd requested continued leave after finding the decomp stain at the courtyard house. I hadn't actually said it, but neither had I corrected my chair's assumption that I was still involved in victim processing. In a sense, I was.
But today's media delirium had made me apprehensive. Taking a deep breath, I scrolled to Mike Perrigio's number and hit “dial.” I was about to click off after seven rings, when a woman picked up. I asked for Mike. There was a long pause. I could hear a lot of racket in the background, a child crying.
When Mike came on, he was brusque, almost cold. My classes were covered. Keep checking in. Dial tone.
I was still staring at the phone when it rang again.
The voice was totally unexpected.
Larke Tyrell asked how I was. He'd heard I was back in Bryson City. Could I meet with him the next day? Zero-nine-hundred at the family assistance center? Good, good. Take care.
Again, I sat staring at the little black handset, not knowing whether to feel crushed or buoyed. My boss at the university obviously knew of the news coverage. That had to be bad. But Larke Tyrell wanted to talk. Had the chief ME come around to my position? Had this other errant tissue persuaded him that the great foot controversy did not involve crash remains?
I reached for the chain on the bedside lamp. Lying in a silence filled with crickets, I felt that my issues were at last being resolved. I was confident of vindication, and never questioned the venue or purpose of the morning's meeting.
That was a mistake.