I FOUND E DWARD A RTHUR IN A VEGETABLE PATCH BEHIND HIS LOG cabin. He wore a wool plaid shirt over denim coveralls, rubber boots, and a ragged straw hat that might once have belonged to a gondolier. He paused when he saw me, then went back to turning dirt.
“Mr. Arthur?” I asked.
The old man continued jabbing a pitchfork at the ground, then pushing on it with a shaky foot. He had so little strength the prongs barely penetrated, but he repeated the movement again and again.
“Edward Arthur?” I spoke more loudly.
He didn't answer. The fork made a soft thud each time he thrust it at the soil.
“Mr. Arthur, I can see that you're busy, but I'd like to ask you a few questions.”
I set my face in what I hoped was an encouraging smile.
Arthur straightened as best he could and walked to a wheelbarrow loaded with rocks and dead vegetation. When he removed his shirt I saw scrawny arms and hands covered with liver spots the size of lima beans. Exchanging the pitchfork for a hoe, he tottered back to the row where he'd been working.
“I'd like to ask you about a piece of property near Running Goat Branch.”
For the first time Arthur looked at me. His eyes were rheumy, the rims red, the irises so pale they were almost colorless.
“I believe you used to own acreage in that vicinity?”
“Why you coming to me?” His breathing sounded wheezy, like air being sucked through a filter.
“I'm curious about who bought your land.”
“Are you FBI?”
“You one of them crash people?”
“I was with the investigation, but I'm not any longer.”
“Who sent you here?”
“No one sent me, Mr. Arthur. I found you through Luke Bowman.”
“Whyn't you put your questions to Luke Bowman?”
“Reverend Bowman didn't know anything about your land, except that it might have been a campground at one time.”
“That's what he said, was it?”
Arthur pulled a parrot-green kerchief from a pocket and ran it across his face. Then he dropped the hoe and hobbled toward me, his back as rounded as a turkey vulture's. When he drew close I could see coarse white hair sprouting from his nostrils, neck, and ears.
“Can't say much about the son, but Thaddeus Bowman was as pesky a man as ever drew air. Ran a hallelujah house for forty years.”
“You were one of Thaddeus Bowman's followers?”
“Till I learnt all that casting out o' demons and speaking in tongues was a heap of horseshit.”
Arthur hawked up phlegm and spat into the dirt.
“I see. You sold your land after the war?”
He went on as if I hadn't spoken.
“Thaddeus Bowman kept hounding me to repent, but I was on to other things. The damned fool wouldn't accept my leavin' until I put it to him from the business end of a squirrel rifle.”
“Mr. Arthur, I'm here to ask about the property you bought from Victor Livingstone.”
“Didn't buy no property from Victor Livingstone.”
“Records indicate Livingstone transferred title to you in 1933.”
“I was nineteen in 1933. Got myself married.”
This seemed to be going nowhere.
“Did you know Victor Livingstone?”
“Sarah Masham. She died in birthing.”
His answers were so disjointed I wondered if he was senile.
“The seventeen acres was our weddin' present. They got a word for that.”
The creases around his eyes deepened with concentration.
“Mr. Arthur, I'm sorry for taking you away from your garden, bu—”
“Dowry. That's the word. It was her dowry.”
“What was her dowry?”
“Ain't you asking 'bout that land t' Running Goat?”
“Sarah's daddy give it to us. Then she died.”
“Victor Livingstone was your wife's father?”
“Sarah Masham Livingstone. That was my first wife. We was married three years when she passed. Wasn't but eighteen. Her daddy was so tore up, he went and died, too.”
“I'm so sorry, Mr. Arthur.”
“That's when I lit outta here and threw in with George Hensley over t' Tennessee. He's the one got me to taking up serpents.”
“What happened with the Running Goat property?”
“City fella asked if he could rent it, run a little camp. I wanted nothing to do with the place, so I said hell, yes. Seemed like easy money.”
Again he cleared his throat and spat.
“It was a campground?”
“They came up for huntin' and fishin', but you ask me, it was mostly to hide from their womenfolk.”
“Was there a house?”
“They stayed with tents and campfires and all, till I built the lodge.” He shook his head. “Beats me what some fools consider fun.”
“When did you build the lodge?”
“Before the war.”
“Did it have a walled courtyard?”
“What the hell kinda question is that?”
“Did you build a stone wall and make a courtyard?”
“I wasn't puttin' up no friggin' Camelot.”
“You sold the land in 1949?”
“The year you broke with Thaddeus Bowman.”
“Luke Bowman remembered that you left his father's congregation right after Edna Farrell died.”
Again the eyes creased.
“You implyin' something, young lady?”
“Edna Farrell was a fine Christian lady. They should have done better by her.”
“Would you mind telling me who bought the camp?”
“Would you mind tellin' me why you're wantin' to know my business?”
I was quickly revising my estimate of Edward Arthur. Because he was old and taciturn I had presumed his faculties might be dulled. The man in front of me was as cagey as Kasparov. I decided to play it straight.
“I'm no longer involved in the crash investigation because I've been accused of acting improperly. The charges are false.”
“I believe there's something wrong in that lodge, and I want to know what. The information may help clear my name, but I think my efforts are being blocked.”
“You been there?”
He started to speak, but a gust of wind grabbed his hat and sent it reeling across the garden. Purple lips drew back against toothless gums, and a scarecrow arm shot out.
Bolting, I overtook the hat and pinned it with a foot. Then I brushed it clean and carried it back to Arthur.
The old man shivered as he took the boater and pressed it to his chest.
“Would you like your shirt, sir?”
“Turnin' cold,” he said, and started for the wheelbarrow.
When he'd finished buttoning, I helped him gather his tools and store them with the wheelbarrow in a shed behind the cabin. As he closed the door, I re-posed my question.
“Who bought your land, Mr. Arthur?”
He clicked the padlock, tugged it twice, and turned to face me.
“You'd best stay clear of that place, young lady.”
“I promise you, sir, I won't go there alone.”
Arthur regarded me for so long, I thought he wasn't going to answer. Then he stepped close and raised his face to mine.
He spat “Prentice” with such force that saliva misted my chin.
“Prentice Dashwood bought your land?”
He nodded, and the watery old eyes darkened.
“The devil hisself,” he hissed.
When I phoned Crowe's office, a deputy informed me that the sheriff was still in Fontana. I sat a moment, clicking my keys on the steering wheel and staring at Arthur's cabin.
Then I started the car and pulled out.
Though fat, black-green clouds were rapidly gathering, I drove with the windows down, the air buffeting my face. I knew wind would soon whip the trees, and rain would wash across the pavement and down the mountain face, but for the moment the air felt good.
Taking Highway 19, I headed back toward Bryson City. Two miles south of town I spotted a small wooden sign and turned off onto a gravel road.
The Riverbank Inn lay a quarter mile down the road, on the banks of the Tuckasegee River. It was a one-story, yellow stucco affair built in a 1950s ranch design. Its sixteen rooms stretched to the left and right of a central office, each with its own front entrance and porch in back. A plastic jack-o'-lantern grinned from every stoop, and an electrified skeleton hung from a tree outside the main entrance.
Clearly, the inn's appeal lay in setting and not in decorating or architectural style.
Pulling up outside the office, I saw only two other vehicles, a red Pontiac Grand Am with Alabama plates, and a blue Ford Taurus with North Carolina plates. The cars were parked in front of units two and seven.
As I passed the skeleton, it gave a warbly moan, followed by a high-pitched mechanical laugh. I wondered how often Primrose had to endure the display.
The motel lobby had the same feel as High Ridge House. A strand of bells hanging on the door, chintz curtains, knotty pine. A plaque welcomed me, and introduced the owners as Ralph and Brenda Stover. Another jack-o'-lantern smiled from the counter.
A man in a Redskins jersey sat beside Jack, leafing through a copy of PC World. He looked up when I jingled in, and smiled at me across the lobby. I assumed this was Ralph.
“May I help you?” Ralph had thinning blond hair, and his skin was pink and Simonize shiny.
“I'm Dr. Tempe Brennan,” I said, extending a hand.
As we shook, his medical ID bracelet jangled like the bells on the door.
“I'm a friend of Primrose Hobbs,” I said.
“Mrs. Hobbs has been staying here for the past two weeks?”
“She's working with the crash investigation.”
“I know Mrs. Hobbs.” Ralph's smile never wavered.
“Is she in?”
“I can ring her room if you'd like.”
He dialed, listened, replaced the receiver.
“Mrs. Hobbs is not answering. Would you like to leave a message?”
“I take it she has not checked out.”
“Mrs. Hobbs is still registered.”
“Have you seen her today?”
“When did you last see her?”
“I can't possibly keep track of all our guests.”
“Mrs. Hobbs hasn't been to work since Sunday, and I'm concerned about her. Could you please tell me what room she's in?”
“I'm sorry, but I can't do that.” The smile widened. “Policy.”
“She could be ill.”
“The maid would report a sick guest.”
Ralph was as polite as a policeman on a traffic stop. O.K. I can do polite.
“This is really important.” I placed a palm lightly on his wrist and looked into his eyes. “Can you tell me what Mrs. Hobbs drives so I can see if her car is in your lot?”
“No, I cannot.”
“Can we go together to check her room?”
“Will you go while I wait here?”
Pulling back my hand, I tried another tack.
“Would Mrs. Stover remember when she last saw Mrs. Hobbs?”
Ralph laced his fingers and laid his hands on the magazine. The hair on his forearms looked pale and wiry against the calaminepink skin.
“You are asking the same questions the others asked, and my wife and I will give you the same answers we gave to them. Unless served with an official warrant we will open no room, and divulge no information about any guest.” His voice was buttery smooth.
Ralph drew a long, patient breath.
“Is there anything else I can help you with?”
I honed my voice to scalpel sharp.
“If Primrose Hobbs comes to any harm because of your policy, you'll wish you'd never sent away for that hotel-motel management course.”
Ralph Stover's eyes narrowed but the smile held firm.
I pulled a business card from my purse and jotted down my cell phone number.
“If you have a change of heart, give me a call.”
I turned and strode toward the door.
“You have a nice day, ma'am.”
I heard the flip of a magazine page, the jangle of a bracelet.
Gunning the engine, I raced from the lot, sped up the highway, and pulled onto the shoulder fifty yards north. If I knew human nature, curiosity would drive Stover to Primrose's room. And he would go there immediately.
Hurriedly locking the car, I sprinted back to the Riverbank turnoff and cut into the woods. Then I picked my way forward, paralleling the gravel road, until I had a clear view of the motel.
My intuition was right on. Ralph was just arriving at unit four. He checked to his left, then his right, unlocked the door, and slipped inside.
Minutes passed. Five. Ten. My breathing slowed to normal. The sky darkened and the wind picked up. Overhead, pines arched and dipped, like ballerinas doing arm positions sur les pointes.
I thought about Primrose. Though we'd known each other for years, I knew very little about the woman. She had married, divorced, had a son somewhere. Beyond that, her life was a blank. Why was that? Had she been unwilling to share, or had I never bothered to ask? Had I treated Primrose like one of the many who pass time with us, delivering our mail, typing our reports, cleaning our houses, while we pursue our own interests, oblivious to theirs?
Perhaps. But I knew Primrose Hobbs well enough to be certain of one thing: She would never willingly leave a job unfinished.
I waited. Lightning streaked from an eggplant cloud, illuminating its interior like a million-watt artery. Thunder rumbled. The storm was not far off.
Finally, Stover emerged, pulled the door shut and jiggled the knob, then hurried up the sidewalk. When he was safely inside the office, I began circling, keeping my distance and using the trees for cover. The back of the inn stretched ahead of me on one side, the river on the other, trees between them. I moved through the trees to a point I estimated was opposite unit four, then paused to listen.
Water boiling over rocks. Boughs swishing in the wind. A train whistle. Valves slamming inside my chest. Thunder, louder now. Quicker.
I crept to the edge of the tree line and peeked out.
A row of wooden porches projected from the back of the motel, each with a black wrought-iron numeral nailed to its railing. My instincts had been good again. Only five yards of grass separated me from unit four.
I took a deep breath, darted across the gap, and double-stepped the four risers. Dashing across the porch, I reached out and yanked the screen door. It opened with a grating squeak. The wind had suddenly calmed, and the sound seemed to shatter the heavy air. I froze.
Sliding between the screen and inner door, I leaned close and peered through the glass. Green-and-white gingham blocked my view. I tried the knob. No go.
I eased the screen door closed, moved to the window, and tried again. More gingham.
Noticing a gap where the lower border met the sill, I placed my palms on the window frame and pushed up. Tiny white flakes fluttered down around my fingers.
I pushed again, and the window jogged upward an inch. Again I froze. In my mind I heard an alarm, saw Ralph burst from the office with a Smith & Wesson.
Turning palms up, I wriggled my fingers into the gap.
What I was doing was illegal. I knew that. Breaking into Primrose's room was precisely the wrong move given my present situation. But I needed to assure myself that she was all right. Later, if it turned out that she wasn't, I needed to know that I had done what I could to help her.
And, to be honest, I needed to do this for myself. I had to find out what had happened to that foot. I had to track Primrose down and show that panel of men that they were wrong.
I spread my feet and pushed. The window opened another inch.
I heard the first patta-patta-pat as fat drops slapped the floorboards. Dime-sized blotches multiplied and merged around my boots.
I manipulated the window another two inches.
It was then that the storm broke. Lightning streaked, thunder cracked, and rain fell in torrents, turning the porch into a shimmering rink.
I abandoned the window and pressed my body to the wall, hoping for protection from the overhang. Within seconds water soaked my hair and dripped from my ears and nose. My clothes molded to me like papier-mâché on a wire frame.
Millions of drops cascaded off the roof and the porch. They bit into the lawn, met up, and coursed in channels between the blades of grass. They formed a river in the gutter above my head. Wind slapped leaves against the wall and my legs, sent others twirling across the ground. It carried the scent of wet earth and wood, of numberless creatures hunkered into burrows and nests.
Shivering, I waited it out, my back against the stucco, hands under armpits. I watched drops bead a spiderweb, build, then bow the fibers. Its maker watched too, a small brown bundle on an outer filament.
Islands were born. Continental plates shifted. A score of species disappeared from the planet forever.
Suddenly my cell phone shrilled, the sound so unexpected I almost jumped from the porch.
I clicked on.
“No comment!” I shrieked, expecting another reporter.
Lightning shot straight to the treetops. Thunder snapped.
“Where the hell are you?” said Lucy Crowe.
“The storm came up quickly.”
“Are you back in Bryson City?”
“I'm still out at Fontana Lake. Do you want to ring me when you've gotten inside?”
“That could be a while.” I had no intention of telling her why.
Crowe spoke to someone else, came back on the line.
“Afraid I've got more bad news for you.”
I heard voices in the background, then the crackle of a police radio.
“Looks like we've found Primrose Hobbs.”