LEAVING THE CEMETERY, I DROVE TOHIGH R IDGE H OUSE, SETTLED Boyd for the night, and returned to my room, unaware that it would be my busiest telephone evening since junior high.
I'd hardly hit the power switch when Pete called.
“How's Big B?”
“Enjoying the mountain food and fauna. Are you back in Charlotte?”
“Hung up in the Hoosier state. Is he straining your patience?”
“Boyd has a unique take on life.”
I told him about Primrose.
“Oh, babe, I'm really sorry. Are you O.K.?”
“I'll be fine,” I lied. “There's more.”
I summarized the interrogation with Davenport, and listed the complaints the lieutenant governor planned to file.
“Sounds like a mainline mind fuck.”
“Don't try to impress me with legal jargon.”
“This has to be politically motivated. Any conjectures as to why?”
“He doesn't like my hair.”
“I do. Did you establish anything more about the foot?”
I told him about the histological age estimate, about the racial classification, and about the formerly and currently missing Daniel Wahnetah and Jeremiah Mitchell.
“Mitchell sounds like a winning candidate for the foot.”
I described the photo of Charlie Wayne Tramper's funeral and my phone call to Raleigh.
“Why would Midkiff lie to you about doing a dig?”
“He doesn't like my hair. Should I get an attorney?”
“You have one.”
Next, it was Ryan. He and McMahon had finished late and would be returning to the reassembly site at dawn, so they were overnighting in Asheville.
“Problems with your phone?”
“The media are scenting blood in the water, so I've had it turned off. Besides, I spent a lot of the day in the library.”
“Mountain life is hard on old folks.”
“What do you mean?”
“I don't know. Seems like a lot of seniors drown, freeze to death, or end up in the food chain around here. I'll take the flatlands, thanks. What goes with the investigation?”
“The chemical guys are picking up weird traces.”
“Not necessarily. I'll fill you in tomorrow.”
“Have Bertrand and Petricelli been found?”
Lucy Crowe beeped in at that point, and I clicked over. She had little to report and no warrant.
“The DA doesn't want to second-guess the magistrate without something more solid.”
“What the hell do these people want? Miss Scarlet in the library, candlestick in hand?”
“She finds your argument contradictory.”
“The VFA profile says something died during the summer. Mitchell disappeared in February. Madam Prosecutor is convinced the stain is from an animal. Says you can't bust in on a citizen for aging meat in his backyard.”
“And the foot?”
“Anything on Primrose's murder?”
“Turns out Ralph Stover is no hayseed. The gentleman owned a company in Ohio, holds patents on a number of microchips. In eighty-six Ralph underwent a metamorphosis following a cardiac event. He sold out for megabucks and bought the Riverbank. Been a country motel owner ever since.”
“Any police record?”
“Two DWIs back in the seventies, otherwise the guy's clean.”
“Does it make sense to you?”
“Maybe he watched too many Newhart reruns, dreamt of being an innkeeper.”
The next to ring was my friend at Oak Ridge. Laslo Sparkes asked if I'd be available in the morning. We made a date for nine o'clock. Good. Maybe he had some more results from the soil samples.
The final call came from my department chair. He opened by apologizing for his abruptness Tuesday night.
“My three-year-old put our kitten in the Kenmore to dry it after a fall into the toilet. My wife had just rescued the poor thing, and everyone was hysterical. Kids crying. Wife crying, trying to get the cat to breathe.”
“How awful. Is it all right?”
“The little guy pulled through, but I don't think he's seeing too well.”
“He'll come around.”
There was a pause. I could hear his breath against the receiver.
“Well, Tempe, there's no easy way, so I'm just going to say it. The chancellor asked me to meet with him today. He's received a complaint about your behavior during the crash investigation and has decided to suspend you pending a full inquiry.”
I remained silent. Nothing I was doing in Bryson City was under the auspices of the university, though I was on its payroll.
“With pay, of course. He says he doesn't believe a word of it but has no choice in the matter.”
“Why not?” I already knew the answer.
“He's afraid of the negative publicity, feels he has to protect the university. And apparently the lieutenant governor is on his case directly and being a real hard-ass about this.”
“And, as everyone knows, the university is funded by the legislature.” My hand was clenched on the phone.
“I tried every argument I could think of. He wouldn't budge.”
“You're welcome back in the department anytime. You could file a grievance.”
“No. I'm going to sort this out first.”
I went through my bedtime ritual with toothpaste, soap, Oil of Olay, hand cream. Cleansed and lubricated, I turned off the lights, crawled under the blankets, and screamed as loud as I could. Then I hugged knees to chest and for the second time in two days began to cry.
It was time to give up. I'm not a quitter, but I had to face reality. I was getting nowhere. I'd uncovered nothing persuasive enough to obtain a warrant, discovered little at the courthouse, struck out with the newspapers. I'd stolen from a library and had almost committed breaking and entering.
It wasn't worth it. I could apologize to the lieutenant governor, resign from DMORT, and return to my normal life.
My normal life.
What was my normal life? Autopsies. Exhumations. Mass fatalities.
I am constantly asked why I've chosen such a morbid vocation. Why I work with the mutilated and decomposed.
Through time and introspection, I have come to understand my choices. I want to serve both the living and the dead. The dead have a right to be identified. To have their stories drawn to a close and to take their places in our memories. If they died at the hands of another, they also have a right to have those hands brought to account.
The living as well deserve our support when the death of another alters their lives: The parent desperate for news of a missing child. The family hopeful of remains from Iwo Jima or Chosin or Hué. The villagers bereft at a mass grave in Guatemala or Kurdistan. The mothers and husbands and lovers and friends dazed at an overlook in the Smoky Mountains. They have a right to information, explanations, and also a right to have murderous hands brought to account.
It is for these victims and the mourners that I tease posthumous tales from bones. The dead will remain dead, whatever my efforts, but there have to be answers and accountability. We cannot live in a world that accepts the destruction of life with no explanations and no consequences.
Of course, an ethics violation would end my career in forensics. If the lieutenant governor had his way, I would effectively be barred from pursuing my profession. An expert witness under an ethical cloud is roadkill on cross-examination. Who would have confidence in any opinion of mine?
Anger replaced self-pity. I would not be driven out of forensics by unfounded accusations and innuendo. I couldn't give in. I had to prove that I was right. I owed it to myself. Even more, I owed it to Primrose Hobbs and her mourning son.
What to do?
I tossed and turned, feeling like that spider in the rain. My world was under attack by forces stronger than me, and I lacked the power to keep it together.
Sleep finally came, but there was no relief.
When agitated, my brain weaves thoughts into psychedelic collages. All night disjointed images floated in and out of focus.
I was in the incident morgue, sorting body parts. Ryan ran past. I called out, asking what had happened to the foot. He didn't stop. I tried to chase him, but my feet wouldn't move. I kept shouting, reached out, but he drew farther and farther away.
Boyd raced around a cemetery, a dead squirrel hanging from his mouth.
Willow Lynette Gist and Jonas Mitchell posed for a wedding picture. In her hand the Cherokee bride clutched the foot I'd taken from coyotes.
Judge Henry Arlen Preston held a book out to an old man. The man started to walk away, but Preston followed, insisting he take the offering. The old man turned and Preston dropped the book. Boyd snatched it up and ran down a long gravel road. When I caught up and took the object from him, it was no longer a book but a stone tablet, the name “Tucker Adams” carved on its face, and 1943, the year they both died, one a prominent citizen, the other obscure.
Simon Midkiff sat on a chair in the P & T garage office. Next to him was a man with long gray braids and a Cherokee headband.
“Why are you here?” Midkiff asked me.
“I can't drive,” I replied. “There was a crash. People were killed.”
“Is Birkby dead?” asked gray braids.
“Did they find Edna?”
“They won't find me either.”
Gray braid's face morphed into that of Ruby McCready, then into the bloated features of Primrose Hobbs.
I screamed and my head jerked from the pillow. My eyes flew to the clock. Five-thirty.
Though the room was chilly, my back was slick with perspiration, my hair plastered to my head. I threw back the covers and ran on tiptoes for a drink of water. Gazing into the mirror, I rolled the glass across my forehead.
I returned to the bedroom and flicked on a light. The window was opaque with predawn blackness. Frost spiderwebbed the corners of the glass.
I pulled on sweats and socks, took out a tablet, and settled at the table. After dividing several sheets into thirds, I began writing down images from my dream.
Henry Arlen Preston. The coyote foot. The braided old man in Cherokee headgear. Had that been Charlie Wayne Tramper? I wrote the name, followed by a question mark. Edna Farrell. Tucker Adams. Birkby. Jonas and Willow Mitchell. Ruby McCready. Simon Midkiff.
Next, I added what I knew about each character.
Henry Arlen Preston: Died 1943. Age eighty-nine. Attorney, judge, writer. Birds. Family man.
Coyote foot: Elderly male. Native-American ancestry. Height approximately five foot six. Dead last summer. Found near Arthur/ H&F property. TransSouth passenger?
Charlie Wayne Tramper: Cherokee. Died 1959. Age seventy-four. Bear attack. Midkiff and Davenport attended the funeral.
Edna Farrell: Died 1949. Holiness follower. Drowned. Remains not recovered.
Tucker Adams: Born 1871. Disappeared then died, 1943.
Anthony Allen Birkby: Died 1959. Car crash. C. A. Birkby on list of H&F officers.
Jonas Mitchell: African American. Married Willow Lynette Gist. Father of Jeremiah Mitchell.
Willow Lynette Gist: Daughter of Martha Rose Gist, Cherokee potter. Mother of Jeremiah Mitchell. Died of TB, 1930.
Though he wasn't in the dream, I made out a slip for Jeremiah Mitchell. African American–Cherokee. Born 1929. Loner. Disappeared last February.
Ruby McCready: Alive and well. Husband Enoch dead, 1986.
Simon Midkiff: Doctorate from Oxford, 1955. Duke, 1955 to 1961. University of Tennessee, 1961 to 1968. Attended Tramper funeral in 1959. Knew Davenport (or was at least at the same funeral). Lied about working for Department of Cultural Resources.
When I'd finished I spread the slips on the table and studied them. Then I began arranging them according to different criteria, starting with gender. The piles were very lopsided, the smaller containing only Edna Farrell, Willow Lynette Gist, and Ruby McCready. I created a slip for Martha Rose Gist. Nothing seemed to connect the women.
Next I tried race. Charlie Wayne Tramper and the Gist-Mitchell lineage went into one pile, along with the coyote foot. I began a chart and drew a line between Jeremiah Mitchell and the foot.
Age. Again I was struck by the number of old people. Though Henry Arlen Preston had managed to die in bed, appropriate, perhaps, for a distinguished judge, few others on the list had had that luxury. Tucker Adams, seventy-two. Charlie Wayne Tramper, seventy-four. Jeremiah Mitchell, seventy-two. I made out a slip for the missing fisherman, George Adair, sixty-seven. All were old.
The window was moving from black to pewter. I decided to sort by birth dates. Nothing. I tried death dates.
Judge Henry Arlen Preston passed away in 1943. According to his tombstone, Tucker Adams also died in 1943. I remembered the feature article on Preston, the brief inside report on Adams's disappearance less than a week later. I placed their slips together.
A. A. Birkby died in 1959. Charlie Wayne Tramper died in 1959. When was the wreck in which Birkby died? May. The same month Charlie Wayne went missing.
I paired the slips.
Edna Farrell died in 1949. Hadn't someone drowned just the day before?
Sheldon Brodie, professor of biology at Appalachian State University. Brodie's body was found. Farrell's wasn't.
I made a slip for Brodie and set it with the one for Edna Farrell.
I stared at the three sets of paired slips. Was it a pattern? Someone is killed or dies, within days another death occurs? Were people dying in pairs?
I started a list of questions.
Edna Farrell's age?
Earlier drowning. Strawberry pie. Age? Date?
Tucker Adams's cause of death?
Jeremiah Mitchell, February. George Adair, September. Others?
The room was the color of the rising sun, and I could hear bird sounds through the closed window. A rectangle of light fell across the table, illuminating my questions and scribbled notes.
I stared at the paired slips, feeling there was something else. Something important. Something my subconscious had not had time to place in the collage.
Laslo was devouring biscuits and gravy when I arrived at the Everett Street Diner. I ordered pecan pancakes, juice, and coffee. While we ate, he told me about the conference he was going to attend at UNC-Asheville. I told him about Crowe's inability to obtain a search warrant.
“So the good old boys are skeptical,” he said, nodding to the waitress that he had finished.
“And girls. The DA is a woman.”
“Then this may not help.”
He pulled a paper from his briefcase and handed it to me. As I read, the waitress refilled our cups. I looked up when I'd finished.
“Basically the report agrees with what you told me on Monday at your lab.”
“Yes. Except for the part about the caproic and heptanoic acid concentrations.”
“The conclusion that they look unusually high.”
“What does that mean?”
“Elevated levels of the longer-chained VFAs usually mean the corpse has been exposed to cold, or that it underwent a period of decreased insect and bacterial activity.”
“Does that alter your estimate of time since death?”
“I still think decomposition began in late summer.”
“Then what's the significance?”
“I'm not sure.”
“Is this a common finding?”
“Great. That will convert the disbelievers.”
“Maybe this will be more helpful.”
This time he took a small plastic vial from his briefcase.
“I found this when filtering the rest of your soil sample.”
The container held a tiny white chip, no larger than a grain of rice. I unscrewed the cap, slid the object onto my palm, and studied it closely.
“It's a fragment of tooth root,” I said.
“That's what I thought, so I didn't treat it with anything, just brushed off the dirt.”
“That's what I thought.”
“Did you take a peek under the scope?”
“How does the pulp chamber look?”
Laslo and I signed evidence transfer forms and I packed the vial and report into my briefcase.
“Could I ask you one last favor?”
“If my car is ready, could you help me return the one I'm driving, then take me to the shop where mine is being fixed?”
When I called P & T an automotive miracle had occurred: The repairs were complete. Laslo followed me to High Ridge House, delivered me to P & T, then went on to his conference. After a brief discussion of pumps and hoses with one of the letters, I paid the bill and slid behind the wheel.
Before leaving P & T, I turned on my phone, scrolled through my programmed numbers, and hit “dial.”
“Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Department Crime Laboratory.”
“Ron Gillman, please.”
“Who's calling, please?”
He came on in seconds.
“The infamous Dr. Brennan.”
“Oh yes. Will we be printing and booking you here?”
“I suppose it's not. I won't even ask if there's anything to it. Are you getting things cleared up?”
“I'm trying. I may need a favor.”
“I have a tooth fragment I want profiled for DNA. Then I want that profile compared to one you've done on a bone sample from the Air TransSouth crash. Can you do that?”
“I don't see why not.”
“Is this urgent?”
“I'll put it on a fast track. When can you get the new sample to me?”
I looked at my watch.
“I'll call over to the DNA section right now, smooth the way. See you at two.”
I turned the key and swung into traffic. There were a couple more things I needed to do before leaving Bryson City.