WHILE I WAS MEETING WITH OUR ESTEEMED LIEUTENANT GOVER nor and friends, the owners of a marina were finding a body.
As was their custom, Glenn and Irene Boynton rose at dawn and dealt with the morning rush, renting equipment, selling bait, filling coolers with ice, sandwiches, and canned drinks. When Irene went to check on a bass boat returned late the previous day, an odd rippling drew her to the end of the dock. Peering into the water, the woman was terrified to see two lidless eyes staring back.
Following Crowe's directions, I found Fontana Lake, then the narrow dirt track leading to the marina. The rain had tapered off, though the leaves overhead were still dripping. I wound through puddles toward the lake, my tires throwing up a spray of mud and water.
As the marina came into view, I saw a wrecker, an ambulance, and a pair of police cruisers bathing a parking area in oscillating red, blue, and yellow light. The marina stretched along the shore on the lot's far side. It consisted of a dilapidated rental office–gas station–general store, with narrow wooden piers jutting into the water at both ends. A wind sock fluttered from a corner of the building, its bright colors jauntily snapping in the breeze, jarringly at odds with the grim scene on the ground below.
A deputy was interviewing a couple in jean shorts and windbreakers on the southernmost pier. Their bodies were tense, their faces the color of pale putty.
Crowe stood on the office steps talking to Tommy Albright, a hospital pathologist who occasionally did autopsies for the medical examiner. Albright was wrinkled and scrawny, with sparse white hair combed straight across his crown. He'd been making Y-incisions since the Precambrian, but I'd never worked with him.
Albright watched me approach then held out a hand.
We shook. I nodded to Crowe.
“I understand you knew the victim.”
Albright tipped his head in the direction of the ambulance. The doors stood open, revealing a shiny white pouch lying on a collapsible gurney. Bulges told me the body bag was already occupied.
“We pulled her out just before the storm broke. Are you willing to try a quick visual?”
No! I didn't want to do this. Didn't want to be here. Didn't want to identify Primrose Hobbs's lifeless body.
We walked to the ambulance and climbed in back. Even with the doors open the smell was noticeable. I swallowed hard.
Albright unzipped the bag and the odor rolled over us, a nauseating cocktail of stagnant mud, seaweed, lake creatures, and putrefying tissue.
“I'd guess she was in the water two or three days. She's not scavenged too badly.”
Holding my breath, I looked into the bag.
It was Primrose Hobbs, but it wasn't. Her face was bloated, her lips swollen like those of a tropical fish in an aquarium. The dark skin had sloughed in patches, revealing the pale underside of her epidermis, and giving her body a mottled appearance. Fish or eels had devoured her eyelids, and nibbled her forehead, cheeks, and nose.
“Won't be too much problem with cause,” said Albright. “Course, Tyrell will want a full autopsy.”
Primrose's wrists were wrapped with electrical tape, and I could see a thin wire embedded in her neck.
I tasted bile, swallowed hard.
He nodded. “Bastard wrapped the line around her throat, then tightened it in back with some kind of tool. Very effective in cutting off the windpipe.”
I placed a hand over my nose and mouth and leaned in. Jagged lines scored the flesh on one side of Primrose's neck, scratched by her nails as she clawed for life with her bound hands.
“It's her,” I said, lunging from the ambulance. I needed air. Miles and oceans of fresh air.
Hurrying to the far end of the unoccupied pier, I stood a moment, arms wrapped around my middle. A boat whined in the distance, grew loud, receded. Waves lapped below my feet. Frogs croaked from the weeds lining the shore. Life continued, oblivious to the death of one of its creatures.
I thought about Primrose, pictured her hobbling out to our final meeting in the morgue parking lot. A sixty-two-year-old black woman with a nursing degree, a weight problem, proficiency at cards, and a fondness for rhubarb crumble. There. I did know something about my friend.
My chest gave a series of heaves.
I pulled a ragged breath.
What could Primrose have done, known, or seen that could have brought such violence down on her? Was she killed because of her involvement with me?
Another tremor. I gulped air.
Or was I magnifying my own role? Was her death random? We Americans are the world's leading producers of homicide. Was Primrose Hobbs bound and strangled for nothing more than her car? That made no sense. Not the garroting and the duct tape. This was a planned murder and she was the intended victim. But why?
Hearing doors slam, I turned. The attendants were climbing into the front of the ambulance. Seconds later, the engine revved, and the vehicle crawled up the dirt road.
Good-bye, old friend. If I brought you to this, please, please, forgive me. My lower lip trembled, and I bit down hard.
You will not cry. But why not? Why hold back tears of mourning for a good and gentle person?
I looked out across the lake. The sky was clearing, and the pines on the far shore stood out blue-black against the first pink rays of dusk. I recalled something else.
Primrose Hobbs loved sunsets. I gazed at the sunset and wept until I felt angry. Beyond angry. I felt a hot, red rage burning inside me.
Bridle it, Brennan. Use it.
Vowing to find answers, I drew a deep breath and walked up the pier to rejoin Crowe and Albright.
“What did she drive?” I asked.
Crowe consulted a spiral pad.
“Blue Honda Civic. Ninety-four. North Carolina plates.”
“It's not parked at the Riverbank Inn.”
Crowe looked at me strangely.
“Car could be on its way to Saudi Arabia by now,” said Albright.
“I told you that the victim was helping me with my investigation.”
“I'll want to talk to you about that.” Crowe.
“Find anything here?” I asked.
“We're still looking.”
“Tire tracks? Footprints?” I knew it was stupid as soon as I said it. The rain would have obliterated such impressions.
Crowe shook her head.
I scanned the pickups and SUVs left behind by fishermen and pleasure boaters. Two sixteen-foot aluminum outboards bobbed in their slips.
“Any permanent tie-ups at the marina?”
“It's strictly a rental business.”
“That means a lot of people coming and going every day. Pretty busy spot for a body dump.”
“Rentals are due back by eight P.M. Apparently things quiet down after that.”
I indicated the couple with the putty faces. They were alone on the dock now, hands in their pockets, unsure what they were supposed to do next.
“Are those the owners?”
“Glenn and Irene Boynton. They say they're here every night until eleven, return around six in the morning. They live up the road.”
Crowe indicated the dirt track.
“They claim to notice cars at night. Worry about kids messing with their boats. Neither one heard or saw a thing over the past three days. For what that's worth. A perp wouldn't exactly advertise that he was using your dock to off-load a corpse.”
The celery eyes appraised the scene, came back to me.
“But you're right. This would be an odd choice. There's a small road kisses the shore about a half mile up from here. We're thinking that was the toss-in point.”
“Two, three days seems a little long for the currents to carry her here,” added Albright. “Body may have deadheaded awhile.”
“Deadheaded?” I snapped, furious at his callousness.
“Sorry. Old logging term. Refers to snagged timber.”
I was almost afraid to ask the next question.
“Was she sexually assaulted?”
“Clothing's on, underwear's in place. I'll test for semen, but I doubt it.”
We stood silent in the gathering dusk. Behind us, the docks creaked and settled against the waves. A cold breeze blew off the water, carrying the scent of fish and gasoline.
“Why would someone garrote an old lady?” Though I spoke aloud, the question was really for me, not my companions.
“Why do these sick bastards do any of the things they do?” Albright replied.
I left them and walked toward Ryan's car. The ambulance and wrecker were gone, but the cruisers remained, pulsing blue light across the muddy lot. I sat a moment, staring at the hundreds of prints left by the feet of ambulance attendants, wrecker operators, police, the pathologist, and myself. Primrose's last disaster scene.
I turned the key and headed back toward Bryson City, tears coursing down my cheeks.
When I checked my messages later that evening, I found one from Lucy Crowe. I returned her call and told her everything I knew about Primrose Hobbs, ending with our Sunday-morning rendezvous at the morgue.
“And that foot and all its paperwork are now missing?”
“So I was told. Primrose was probably the last person to see the stuff.”
“Parker Davenport told you she signed it out. Did she sign it back in?”
“Tell me about security.”
“All DMORT and ME personnel have IDs, as do the people from your department and the Bryson City PD who work security. A guard checks IDs at the perimeter fence, and there's a sign in/sign out sheet inside the morgue. A color-coded dot goes on your badge each day.”
“In case someone manages to duplicate the ID, they'd have no way of knowing that day's color.”
“What about after hours?”
“By now there's probably a smaller crew left at the morgue, mostly records and computer staff, some medical personnel. There'd be no one there at night except your deputy or a Bryson City cop.”
I pictured the lieutenant governor with his videocasette.
“There is a surveillance camera on the gate.”
“What about the computers?”
“Every VIP user has a password, and only a limited number of people can enter or delete data.”
“Assuming Hobbs returned it, where would that foot have been?”
“At the end of the day everything goes into reefer trucks marked ‘unprocessed,’ ‘in process,’ or ‘identified.’ Cases are located with a computer tracking system.”
“How hard would it be to break in?”
“High school kids have hacked the Pentagon.”
I heard distant conversation, like voices drifting through a wormhole in space.
“Sheriff, I think Primrose Hobbs was murdered because of that foot.”
“Or the thing could be a biological specimen.”
“A woman examines an object which is the subject of controversy, that object disappears, and the woman turns up dead three days later. If there's no link it's one hell of a coincidence.”
“We're looking at every angle.”
“Have you learned why no one reported her missing?”
“Apparently, parts of the operation are shifting to Charlotte. When Hobbs failed to show at the morgue on Monday, her coworkers figured she had gone there. Folks in Charlotte assumed she was still in Bryson City. She was in the habit of phoning her son on Saturdays, so he had no clue that anything was amiss.”
I wondered about Primrose's son. Was he married? A father? In the army? Gay? Were mother and child close? Occasionally my work casts me as the bearer of life's most terrible news. In one visit, families are shattered, lives forever altered. Pete had said that most marine officers in Vietnam days would rather engage the enemy than visit a home in middle America to deliver a message of death. I wholeheartedly shared those sentiments.
I imagined the son's face, blank at first, confused. Then, with comprehension, agony, grief, the pain of an open wound. I closed my eyes, sharing at that moment his crushing despair.
“I dropped in at the Riverbank Inn.”
Crowe's voice brought me back.
“After the marina, I swung by for a chat with Ralph and Brenda,” she said. “They admitted they hadn't seen Hobbs since Sunday, but didn't consider it odd. She'd left without explanation twice during her stay, so they assumed she'd gone off again.”
“Gone off where?”
“They figured she was visiting family.”
“Her room suggested otherwise. All her toiletries were there, toothbrush, dental floss, face cream, the things a woman takes when she travels. Her clothes were still in the dresser, suitcase empty under the bed. Her arthritis medication was sitting on the nightstand.”
“Purse? Car keys?”
“Negative. Looks like she may have left the room on her own, but she wasn't planning to be away overnight.”
Crowe listened while I described my own visit to the inn, leaving out nothing but my larcenous intentions.
“Why do you suppose Ralph went into her room?”
“Your intuition may have been right. Curiosity. Or maybe he knows more than he's letting on. Maybe he wanted to get something out. I don't have that yet, but we will be watching Mr. Stover. We'll also talk to anyone acquainted with the victim, look for witnesses who might have seen her during the time she was missing. You know the drill.”
“Round up the usual suspects.”
“In Swain County, that ain't many.”
“Was there nothing in that room to suggest where she might have gone? An address? A map? A toll ticket?”
The line hummed.
“We found two numbers next to the phone.”
As she read the digits, my stomach tightened.
The first rang at High Ridge House. The second rang the cellular-on my belt.
An hour later I lay in bed, trying to sort and evaluate what I knew.
Fact: My mysterious foot did not belong to Daniel Wahnetah. Possibility: The foot came from a corpse at the courtyard house. The ground stain contained volatile fatty acids. Something had decomposed there. Possibility: The foot came from Air TransSouth 228. Biohazard containers and other problem body parts had been recovered near the wreckage.
Fact: The foot and its dossier were now missing. Possibility: Primrose Hobbs had kept the material. Possibility: Primrose Hobbs had returned the material, which was then taken by someone else.
Fact: The remains of Jean Bertrand and Pepper Petricelli had not been identified. Possibility: Neither man was on the plane. Possibility: Both the detective and his prisoner were on board, their bodies pulverized by the explosion.
Fact: Jean Bertrand was now a suspect.
Fact: A witness claimed to have seen Pepper Petricelli in upstate New York. Possibility: Bertrand had been turned. Possibility: Bertrand had been burned.
Fact: I had been accused of stealing evidence. Possibility: I was no longer trusted because of my relationship with Andrew Ryan, Bertrand's SQ partner. Possibility: I was being set up as a scapegoat to prevent me from participating in the investigation. But which investigation, the plane crash or the courtyard house? Possibility: I was at risk. Somebody had tried to run me down and had trashed my room.
A tickle of fear. I held my breath, listening. Silence.
Fact: Primrose Hobbs had been murdered. Possibility: Her death was a random act of violence. More likely: Her death was related to the missing foot.
Fact: Edward Arthur obtained the property at Running Goat Branch in 1933 through his marriage to Sarah Livingstone. He rented it as a campground, then built a lodge, then sold the land in 1949 to a man named Prentice Dashwood, but title was taken in the name of H&F Investment Group, LLP. Arthur had not erected any stone walls or a courtyard. Who was Prentice Dashwood?
I turned on the lamp, retrieved McMahon's Delaware fax, and scurried back to bed, my lips chattering. Huddled under the covers, I reread the names.
W. G. Davis, F. M. Payne, C. A. Birkby, F. L. Warren, P. H. Rollins, M. P. Veckhoff.
The only name that was remotely familiar was that of Veckhoff. A Charlottean named Pat Veckhoff had served in the North Carolina senate for sixteen years. He had died suddenly the previous winter. I wondered if there was a link to the M. P. Veckhoff on the list.
Returning the room to darkness, I lay back and searched for connections among the things I knew. It was hopeless. Images of Primrose kept disrupting my concentration.
Primrose at her computer, glasses on the end of her nose. Primrose in the parking lot. Primrose at the scene of a commuter plane crash, 1997, Kinston, North Carolina. Primrose across a card table, playing bid whit. Primrose in Charlotte. The Presbyterian Hospital cafeteria. I was eating vegetarian pizza made with canned peas and asparagus. I remembered hating the pizza, but not why I had met Primrose there.
Primrose lying in a body bag.
Why, dear God?
Was she carefully chosen, researched, stalked, then overpowered as part of an elaborate plan? Or was she selected by chance? Some psycho's sick impulse. The first blue Honda. The fourth woman to exit the mall. The next black. Was death part of the plan, or did things go badly wrong, spinning out of control to one irreversible moment?
Violence against women is not a recent phenomenon. The bones of my sisters litter history and prehistory. The mass grave at Cahokia. The sacred cenote at Chichén Itzá. The Iron Age girl in the bog, hair shorn, blindfolded and leashed.
Women are conditioned to be wary. Walk faster at the sound of footsteps. Peek through the hole before opening the door. Stand by the controls in the empty elevator. Fear the dark. Was Primrose simply another marcher in a random parade of female victims?
Who was I kidding? I knew the reason. Had no doubt.
Primrose Hobbs had been killed because she fulfilled a request. My request. She had accepted a fax, taken measurements, and provided data. She had helped me, and in doing that she had threatened someone.
I'd gotten her involved, and that someone had butchered her for it. The guilt and sorrow formed a physical weight pressing on my chest.
But how had Primrose posed a threat? Had she uncovered something that I did not know? Had she realized the significance of that discovery, or had she been unaware of its importance? Had she been silenced for what she knew, or for what someone feared she would figure out?
And what about me? Was I also a threat to some homicidal madman?
My thoughts were interrupted by a soft wailing from below. Throwing back the covers, I pulled on jeans and a sweatshirt and slipped into my deck shoes. Then I tiptoed through the silent house and out the back door.
Boyd was sitting beside his doghouse, nose pointed at the night sky. On seeing me, he sprang to his feet and waggled the entire back half of his body. Then he dashed to the fence and went bipedal. Leaning on forepaws, he stretched his neck and gave a series of yips.
I reached over and scratched his ears. Boyd lapped my hand, giddy with excitement.
When I entered the pen and leashed him, the dog went hyperactive, spinning and kicking up dirt.
“Be cool.” I pointed a finger at his snout. “This is against the rules.”
He looked at me, tongue dangling, eyebrows dancing. I led him across the yard and into the house.
Moments later we lay in the dark, Boyd on the carpet beside my bed. I heard him sigh as he settled chin on forepaws.
I fell asleep with my hand on his head.