THE FIRST THING I NOTICED ON OPENING MY EYES WAS A SHEET OF paper wedged against the braided rug.
The clock said seven-twenty. Throwing back the covers, I retrieved the paper and scanned the contents. It was a fax containing six names.
Shivering in panties and T-shirt, I checked the header information: Sender: Office of the Attorney General, State of Delaware. Recipient: Special Agent Byron McMahon. Subject: H&F, LLP.
It was the list of H&F officers. McMahon must have forgotten to mention it the night before and had slipped it under my door. I read the names. Nothing clicked.
Chilled through, I tucked the fax into the outer pocket of my computer case, ran on tiptoes into the bathroom, and hopped into the shower. Reaching for the shampoo, I suffered my first defeat of the day.
Damn! I'd left my groceries in Luke Bowman's truck.
Filling the empty shampoo container with water, I gave my hair a low-lather scrub. After blowing it dry and applying makeup, I slipped on khakis and a white cotton blouse, then checked my image.
The woman in the mirror looked appropriately prim, but a bit too casual. I added a cardigan, buttoned at the top as Katy had instructed. Wouldn't want to look like a dork.
I checked again. Stylish but professional. I hurried downstairs.
Too tense for breakfast, I threw down coffee, fed Boyd the dregs from the Alpo bag, had a nervous tinkle, and collected my purse. I'd just crossed the front door threshold when I stopped short.
I had no wheels.
I was standing on the porch, looking good but feeling panicky, when the door flew open and a boy of about seventeen emerged. His hair was dyed blue and shaved to a single strip running from his forehead to the nape of his neck. His nose, eyebrows, and earlobes displayed more metal than a Harley shop.
Ignoring me, the young man clumped down the stairs and disappeared around the house.
Seconds later, Ryan appeared, blowing steam across the top of a mug.
“What's up, buttercup?”
“Who the hell was that kid?”
“The studded Smurf?” He took an experimental sip. “Ruby's nephew, Eli.”
“Nice look. Ryan, I hate to ask, but I have a meeting with Tyrell in twenty minutes and just realized I have no car.”
He dug into a pocket and tossed me his keys.
“Take mine. I'll ride with McMahon.”
“Are you sure?”
“You're not on the rental contract. Don't get arrested.”
In the past, family assistance centers were established near accident sites in order to facilitate the transfer of records. This practice was abandoned once psychologists began to recognize the emotional impact on relatives of being in such proximity to the death scene.
The FAC for Air TransSouth 228 was at a Sleep Inn in Bryson City. Ten rooms had been converted into offices by replacing beds and armoires with desks, chairs, telephones, and laptops. It was here that antemortem records had been collected, briefings had been held, and families had been informed of identifications.
All that was finished now. With the exception of a single pair, the rooms that had once swarmed with grieving relatives, NTSB personnel, medical examiner interviewers, and Red Cross representatives had reverted to their original function.
Security was also not what it had been. Pulling into the lot, I was surprised to see journalists chatting and drinking from Styrofoam cups, obviously awaiting a breaking story.
So intent was I on a timely arrival, it never crossed my mind that the story was me.
Then, a cameraman shouldered his minicam.
“There she is.”
Other cameras went up. Microphones shot out, and shutters clicked like gravel in a power mower.
“Why did you move remains?”
“Did you tamper with disaster victim packets?”
“Is it true that evidence is missing from cases you processed?”
Strobes flashed in my face. Microphones nudged my chin, my forehead, my chest. Bodies pressed against me, moved with me, like a tangle of seaweed clinging to my limbs.
I kept my eyes straight, acknowledging no one. My heart hammered as I pushed forward, a swimmer struggling toward shore. The distance to the motel seemed oceanic, insurmountable.
Then, I felt a strong hand on my arm, and I was in the lobby. A state trooper was locking the glass doors, glaring at the mob outside.
“You all right, ma'am?”
I didn't trust my voice to reply.
“This way, please.”
I followed to a bank of elevators. The trooper waited with hands clasped, feet spread as we ascended. I stood on rubbery legs, trying to recompose my thoughts.
“How did the press find out about this?” I asked.
“I wouldn't know that, ma'am.”
On the second floor, the trooper walked to Room 201, squared his shoulders to the wall beside the door.
“It's not locked.” He fixed his eyes on something that was not me.
Drawing two steadying breaths, I turned the knob and entered.
Seated behind a desk on the far side of the room was North Carolina's second in command. Of a zillion thoughts winging through my mind at that moment, this is the one I remember: Parker Davenport's color had improved since I'd seen him on the day of the crash.
To the lieutenant governor's left sat Dr. Larke Tyrell, to his right, Earl Bliss. The ME looked at me and nodded. The DMORT commander's eyes wouldn't meet mine.
“Dr. Brennan, please have a seat.” The lieutenant governor gestured to an armchair directly in front of the desk.
As I sat, Davenport leaned back and laced his fingers on his vest. The view behind him was spectacular, a Smoky Mountain postcard in explosive fall color. Squinting into the glare, I recognized my disadvantage. Had Tyrell been in charge, I'd have known the seating arrangement was strategy. I wasn't sure Davenport was that smart.
“Would you like coffee?” Davenport asked.
“No, thank you.”
Looking at Davenport, I had difficulty imagining how he had lasted so long in public office. He was neither tall nor short, dark nor fair, smooth nor craggy. His hair and eyes were nondescript brown, his speech flat and without inflection. In a system that elects its leaders based on looks and eloquence, Davenport was clearly a noncontender. In a word, the man was unmemorable. But perhaps this was his greatest asset. People voted for Davenport, then forgot him.
The lieutenant governor unlaced his fingers, examined his palms, then looked at me.
“Dr. Brennan, some very disturbing allegations have been brought to my attention.”
“I'm glad we're meeting to clear this up.”
“Yes.” Davenport leaned into the desk and opened a folder. To its left lay a videocassette. No one spoke as he selected and perused a document.
“Let's get right to the meat of this.”
“Did you enter the site of the Air TransSouth crash on October fourth prior to the arrival of NTSB or medical examiner officials?”
“Since I was in the area, Earl Bliss asked me to stop by.” I looked at the DMORT commander. His eyes remained on the hands in his lap.
“Did you have official orders to go there?”
“No, sir, but—”
“Did you falsely identify yourself as an official representative of the NDMS?”
“No, I did not.”
Davenport checked another paper.
“Did you interfere with local authorities in their search-and-recovery efforts?”
“Absolutely not!” I felt heat rise up my neck and into my face.
“Did you order Deputy Anthony Skinner to remove protective covering from a crash victim, knowing there was risk of animal predation?”
“That's standard protocol.”
I turned to Earl and Larke. Neither man was looking at me. Stay calm, I told myself.
“It is alleged that you broke protocol, ” Davenport emphasized my word, “by removing remains prior to documentation.”
“That was a unique situation requiring immediate action. It was a judgment call, which I explained to Dr. Tyrell.”
Davenport leaned farther forward, and his tone grew hard.
“Was stealing those remains also a judgment call?”
“The case to which we refer is no longer at the morgue.”
“I know nothing about that.”
The insipid brown eyes narrowed.
Davenport picked up the cassette, crossed to a TV/VCR unit, and inserted it. When he hit “play,” a ghostly, gray scene filled the screen, and I knew instantly I was viewing a surveillance tape. I recognized the highway and the entrance to the morgue parking lot.
Within seconds my car entered the frame. A guard waved me away. Primrose appeared, spoke to the guard, tapped her way to the car, and handed me a bag. We exchanged a few words, then she patted my shoulder, and I drove off.
Davenport hit “stop” and rewound the tape. As he returned to his chair, I looked at the other two men. Both were studying me, their faces unreadable.
“Let me summarize,” said Davenport. “Following a highly irregular-sequence of events, the specimen in question, the specimen that you claim to have wrested from coyotes, is now missing.”
“What does that have to do with me?”
Davenport picked up another paper.
“Early Sunday morning, a data-entry technician named Primrose Hobbs removed fragmented human tissue bearing morgue number 387 from a refrigerated trailer containing cases in process. She then proceeded to the admitting section and withdrew the disaster victim packet associated with those remains. Later that morning, Miss Hobbs was seen transferring a package to you in the morgue parking lot. That transaction was recorded, and we have just observed it.”
Davenport drilled me with a look.
“Those remains and that packet are now gone, Dr. Brennan, and we believe you have them.”
“I would strongly suggest you speak with Miss Hobbs.” My voice dripped icicles.
“That was, of course, our first endeavor. Unfortunately, Miss Hobbs has not reported to work this week.”
“Where is she?”
“That is unclear.”
“Has she checked out of her motel?”
“Dr. Brennan, I realize that you are a board-certified forensic anthropologist of international stature. I am aware that you have consulted to Dr. Tyrell in the past, as well as to coroners worldwide. I am told that your credentials are unimpeachable. That makes your behavior in this matter all the more puzzling.”
Davenport turned to his companions, as if enlisting support.
“We don't know why you've developed an obsession with this case, but it is clear that your interest has gone far beyond what is professional or ethical.”
“I've done nothing wrong.”
For the first time, Earl spoke.
“Your intentions may be honorable, Tempe, but unauthorized removal of a victim shows very poor judgment.”
He dropped his eyes and flicked a nonexistent particle from his pants.
“And is a felony,” Davenport chimed in.
I spoke to the DMORT commander.
“Earl, you know me. You know I would never do that.”
Before Earl could reply, Davenport exchanged the paper in his hand for a brown envelope, and shook two photos from it. He glanced at the larger, laid it on the desk, then pushed it toward me with one finger.
For a moment I thought it was a joke.
“That is you, Dr. Brennan, is it not?”
Ryan and I were eating hot dogs across from the Great Smoky Mountains Railroad Depot.
“And Lieutenant-Detective Andrew Ryan from Quebec.” He pronounced it Qwee-bec.
“What is the relevance of this, Mr. Davenport?” Though my face was burning, I kept my voice frigid.
“Exactly what is your relationship with this man?”
“Detective Ryan and I have worked together for years.”
“But I am correct in assuming that your relationship extends beyond the professional, am I not?”
“I have no intention of answering questions about my private life.”
Davenport pushed the second photo across the desk.
I was too stunned to speak.
“I surmise from your reaction that you know the gentleman pictured with Detective Ryan?”
“Jean Bertrand was Ryan's partner.” Shock waves were passing through every cell in my body.
“Are you aware that this Bertrand is being investigated in conjunction with the Air TransSouth crash?”
“Where is this going?”
“Dr. Brennan, I shouldn't have to spell it out. Your”—he feigned indecision over word selection—“colleague has ties to a principal suspect. You yourself have acted”—again the careful search— “erratically.”
“I have done nothing wrong,” I repeated.
Davenport tilted his head and twisted his mouth, neither smiling nor grimacing. Then he sighed, indicating what a burden this was for all.
“Perhaps, as Mr. Bliss has suggested, your only offense has been one of misjudgment. But in tragedies of this nature, with so much media attention, and so many grieving families, it is of utmost importance that those involved avoid even the appearance of impropriety.”
I waited. Davenport began gathering papers.
“Reports of suspected misconduct are being lodged with the National Disaster Medical System, the American Board of Forensic Anthropology, and the Ethics Committee of the American Academy of Forensic Sciences. The chancellor of your university will also be informed.”
Cold fear shot through me.
“Am I suspected of committing a crime?”
“We must consider every possibility, painstakingly and impartially.”
Something snapped. I shot to my feet, fingers tightening into fists.
“There's nothing impartial about this meeting, Mr. Davenport, and you have no intention of treating me fairly. Or Detective Ryan. Something's wrong, very wrong, and I've been set up as some sort of scapegoat.”
Tears burned the backs of my lids. It's the glare, I told myself. Don't you dare cry!
“Who turned this meeting into a publicity circus?”
Red splotches appeared in Davenport's cheeks, looking oddly out of place in the bland complexion.
“I have no idea how the press found out about this meeting. The leak did not come from my office.”
“And the surveillance photo? Where did that order originate?”
Davenport did not answer. The room was deathly quiet.
I uncurled my fingers and drew a deep breath. Then I impaled Davenport with a look.
“I perform my duties scrupulously, ethically, and out of concern for both the living and the dead, Lieutenant Governor Davenport.” I kept my voice level. “I do not deviate from protocol. Dr. Tyrell knows that and Mr. Bliss knows that.”
My eyes moved to Larke, but he looked away. Earl's attention remained focused on his pants. I turned back to Davenport.
“I don't know what's going on, or why it's going on, but I will find out.”
I pointed a finger to emphasize every word.
“I. Will. Find. Out.”
With that, I turned and walked from the room, quietly closing the door behind me. The trooper trailed me down the corridor, into the elevator, and across the motel lobby.
The parking lot was an encore of my arrival. Though my escort defended one flank, I was accosted on all others. Cameras rolled, microphones jabbed, and strobes flashed. Questions were shouted in the round. Pushing forward, head down, arms clasped to my chest, I felt more trapped than I had by the coyote pack.
At Ryan's car, the trooper restrained the onslaught with both arms while I unlocked and opened the door. Then he bullied the crowd back, and I broke free and shot onto the highway.
As I drove, my face cooled and my pulse normalized, but a million questions swirled in my brain. How long had I been under surveillance? Could this explain the ransacking of my room? How far would they go? Why?
Would they be back?
Who were “they”?
My eyes flew to the rearview mirror.
Where in God's name was that foot? Had someone actually taken it? If so, for what purpose?
How did they know it was gone? Who had wanted that foot on Monday? Why?
Where was Primrose Hobbs?
The lieutenant governor's office was not typically included in the disaster inquiry loop. Why was Davenport taking such an interest?
Could I actually be facing criminal charges? Should I obtain counsel?
I was completely absorbed in these questions, driving robotically, seeing and responding to my surroundings, but registering nothing on a conscious level. I don't know how far I'd driven when a loud whoop sent my eyes back to the rearview mirror.
A police cruiser rode my bumper, headlights flashing like a strobotron.