I am a useless old woman. I have never had a job or held office. I have not written a book or designed a garden. I have no gift for poetry, painting, or music. But I was a loyal and obedient wife all the years of my marriage. I loved my husband, supported him unquestioningly. It was the role to which my upbringing led me.
Martin Patrick Veckhoff was a good provider, a loving father, an honest businessman. But, as I sit, deafened by the silence of another sleepless night, questions burn inside my heart. Was there another side to the man I lived with for almost six decades? Were there things that weren't right?
I am sending you a diary that my husband kept under lock and key. Wives have a way, Dr. Brennan, wives alone with time on their hands. I found the diary years ago, returned to it again and again, listened, followed the news. Kept silent.
The man killed on the way to Pat's funeral was Roger Lee Fairley. His obituary gives the date. Read the journal. Read the clippings.
I'm not sure what it all means, but your visit frightened me. These past few days I have peered deep into my soul. Enough. I cannot endure one more night alone with the dread.
I am old, soon to die. But I ask one thing. If my suspicions prove correct, do not disgrace our daughter.
I apologize for my rudeness on Friday last.
Marion Louise Willoughby Veckhoff
Burning with curiosity, I double-checked the security system, made myself a cup of tea, and took everything to my study. After collecting notebook and pen, I opened the journal, removed and upended an envelope I found stuck between the pages.
Neatly trimmed clippings fluttered to my desk, some without identification, others from the Charlotte Observer, the Raleigh News & Observer, the Winston-Salem Journal, the Asheville Citizen-Times, also known as “the Voice of the Mountains,” and the Charleston Post and Courier. Most were obituaries. A few were feature stories. Each reported the death of a prominent man.
The poet Kendall Rollins succumbed to leukemia on May 12, 1986. Among those surviving Rollins was his son, Paul Hardin Rollins.
The small hairs on my neck reached for the ceiling. P. H. Rollins was on the list of H&F officers. I made note.
Roger Lee Fairley died when his small plane went down in Alabama eight months back. O.K., that's what Mrs. Veckhoff said. I jotted the name and date. February 13.
The oldest item described the 1959 highway accident that killed Anthony Allen Birkby.
The other names meant nothing. I added them to my list, along with their dates of death, laid the clippings aside, and turned to the diary.
The first entry was made on June 17, 1935, the last in November 2000. Flipping through the pages, I could see that the handwriting changed several times, suggesting multiple authors. The final three decades were chronicled in a taut, cramped script almost too small to read.
Martin Patrick Veckhoff was tightly wrapped, indeed, I thought, returning to the first page. For the next two hours I plowed through faded script, now and then glancing at my watch, distracted by thoughts of Lucy Crowe.
The journal contained not a single proper name. Codes or nick-names were used throughout. Omega. Ilus. Khaffre. Chac. Itzmana.
I recognized an Egyptian pharaoh here, a Greek letter there. Some handles sounded vaguely familiar, others not at all.
There were financial accounts: money in, money out. Repairs. Purchases. Awards. Demerits. There were descriptions of events. A dinner. A business meeting. A literary discussion.
Beginning in the forties another type of entry began to appear. Lists of code names, followed by sets of strange symbols. I flipped through several. The same players reappeared year after year, then disappeared, never to be seen again. When one went out, a new one came in.
I counted. There were never more than eighteen names on any of these rosters.
When I finally leaned back, my tea was cold, and my neck felt as though it had been hung from a line and allowed to dry in the wind. Birdie was asleep on the love seat.
“All right. Let's go at it the other way round.”
The cat stretched but didn't open an eye.
Using the dates I'd taken from Mrs. Veckhoff 's clippings, I fast-forwarded through the journal. A list of code names was entered four days after Birkby's car crash. Sinuhe appeared for the first time, but Omega was missing. I scanned subsequent lists. Omega was never mentioned again.
Had Anthony Birkby been Omega?
Using this hypothesis, I flashed ahead to 1986.
Within days of Kendall Rollins's death, a list appeared. Mani replaced Piankhy.
Heart beating slightly faster, I continued with the clipping dates.
John Morgan died in 1972. Three days later, a list. Arrigatore checked in. Itzmana vanished.
William Glenn Sherman died in 1979. Five days later Veckhoff recorded a list. Ometeotl debuted. Rho was history.
Every death notice clipped by Mrs. Veckhoff was followed within days by a code name list. In each instance, a regular disappeared, and a newcomer joined the roster. Matching clippings with journal entries, I correlated code names with real names for everyone dead since 1959.
A. A. Birkby: Omega; John Morgan: Itzmana; William Glenn Sherman: Rho; Kendall Rollins: Piankhy.
“But what about the early years?”
Bird had no idea.
“O.K., back the other way.”
I flipped to a clean page in my notebook. Every time an entry showed the replacement of one code name with another, I noted the date. It didn't take long.
In 1943, Ilus was replaced by Omega. Could that have been the year Birkby joined H&F?
In 1949, Narmer took over for Khaffre.
Pharaoh in, pharaoh out. Was it some sort of Masonic group?
I moved forward, added the year for each list.
Nineteen fifty-nine, 1972, 1979, 1986.
I stared at the years. Then I flew to my briefcase, pulled out other notes, and checked.
I looked at my watch: 3:20 A.M. Where the hell was Lucy Crowe?
To say I rested poorly would be like saying Quasimodo had a bad back. I tossed and turned, hovering on the edge but never moving into real sleep.
When the phone rang I was already up, sorting laundry, sweeping the patio, snipping dead leaves, drinking cup after cup of coffee.
“Did you get it?” I almost shrieked.
“Repeat the punch line.”
“I can't tie up the line, Pete.”
“You have call waiting.”
“Why are you phoning at seven in the morning?”
“I have to return to Indiana to reinterview Itchy and Scratchy.”
It took me a moment to connect.
“The Bobbsey twins?”
“I've downgraded them. I'm calling to tell you that Boyd will be furloughed to the Granbar Kennel.”
“What? The towels were too rough here?”
“He didn't want to impose.”
“Isn't Granbar awfully expensive?”
“Knowing I'm in Big Law, Boyd has come to expect a certain lifestyle.”
“I could work him in.”
“You like that dog,” he wheedled.
“That dog is a moron. But there's no reason to lay out bucks when I'm still stuck with five pounds of Alpo.”
“The Granbar staff will be crushed.”
“They'll work through it.”
“I'll bring him by in an hour.”
I was spray-cleaning the inside of the trash can when the phone rang again. Lucy Crowe's voice was taut with frustration.
“It's still no go with the magistrate. I don't get it. Frank's usually reasonable, but he got so angry this morning I thought he was going to have a heart attack. I backed off because I was afraid I'd kill the weasel.”
I told her what I'd found in the Veckhoff diary.
“Can you check on MPs from seventy-two and seventy-nine?”
A long silence rolled down from the highlands. Finally, “I noticed a metal bar when we were out at that place, lying in the dirt by the front porch.”
“Oh?” My burglary tool.
“If wreckage is discovered on property within reasonable proximity of an airplane crash, my office has jurisdiction during the period of active recovery.”
“Only for matters relating directly to the crash. To check for survivors who might have crawled off, for example. Maybe died under the house.”
“Or inside the courtyard.”
“Anything suspicious found while inside, I'd need a regular warrant.”
“There are still two passengers unaccounted for.”
“Did that bar look like wreckage to you?”
“Could have been a piece from the cabin floor.”
“That was my impression. Guess I'd better take a look.”
“I can be there by two.”
By three, Boyd and I were in the backseat of a Jeep, Crowe at the wheel, a deputy riding shotgun. Two others were behind us in a second vehicle.
The chow was as pumped as I was, though for different reasons. He rode with his head out the window, nose twisting like a weather vane in a tropical storm. Now and then I'd push down on his haunches. He'd sit, rise immediately.
The radio sputtered as we raced along the county road. Passing the Alarka Fire Department, I noted that only one reefer truck and a few cars were parked in the lot. A Bryson City cruiser guarded the entrance, its driver bent over a magazine spread across the steering wheel.
Crowe took the blacktop to its end, then the Forest Service road, where I'd left my car three weeks earlier. Ignoring the cutoff to the crash site, she proceeded another three quarters of a mile and turned onto a different logging trail. After crawling upward for what seemed like miles, she stopped, studied the forest to either side, advanced, repeated the process, then took us off road. Our backup followed closely.
The Jeep bounced and pitched, branches scraping its top and sides. Boyd pulled in like a box turtle, and I yanked my arm from the window ledge. The dog whipped his head from right to left, spraying saliva on everyone. The deputy pulled a hanky from his pocket and wiped his neck but said nothing. I tried to remember his name. Was it Craig? Gregg?
Then the trees stepped back, yielding to a narrow dirt track. Ten minutes later, Crowe braked, alighted, and swung back what looked like an entire thicket. When we proceeded, I could see that what she'd moved was a gate, entirely overgrown with kudzu and ivy. Moments later the Arthur house came into view.
“I'll be goddamned,” said the deputy. “This place in the 911 book?”
“Listed as abandoned,” said Crowe. “I never knew it was here.”
Crowe pulled to the front of the house and honked twice. No one appeared.
“There's a courtyard around to the side.” Crowe nodded in that direction. “Tell George and Bobby to cover that entrance. We'll enter in front.”
They got out, simultaneously releasing the safety clips on their guns. As the deputy walked back to the second Jeep, Crowe turned to me.
“You stay here.” I wanted to argue, but her look told me no way.
“In the Jeep. Until I call you.”
I rolled my eyes but said nothing. My heart was hammering, and I shifted about more than Boyd.
Crowe sounded another long blast on the horn while scanning the upper windows of the house. The deputy rejoined her, a Winchester pump held diagonally across his chest. They crossed to the house and climbed the steps.
“Swain County Sheriff 's Department.” Her call sounded tinny in the thin air. “Police. Please respond.”
She banged on the door.
No one came forth.
Crowe said something. The deputy spread his feet and raised the shotgun, and the sheriff began hammering the door with her boot. There was no give.
Crowe spoke again. The deputy replied, keeping the barrel of his weapon trained on the door.
The sheriff walked back to the Jeep, sweat dampening the carrot frizz escaping her hat. She rummaged in back, returned to the porch with a crowbar.
Wiggling the tip between two shutters, she applied the full force of her body weight. A more earnest rendition of my own jimmying act.
Crowe repeated the movement, adding a Monica Seles grunt. A panel yielded slightly. Sliding the bar farther into the crack, she heaved again, and the shutter flew back, hitting the wall with a loud crash.
Crowe laid down the bar, braced herself, then smashed a foot through the window. Glass shattered, sparkled in the sun as it showered the porch with jagged shards. Crowe kicked again and again, enlarging the opening. Boyd urged her on with excited barks.
Crowe stood back and listened. Hearing no movement, she poked her head inside and called out again. Then the sheriff unholstered her gun and disappeared into darkness. The deputy followed.
Centuries later the front door opened, and Crowe stepped onto the porch. She waved a “come on” gesture.
I leashed Boyd with clumsy hands and wrapped the loop around my wrist. Then I dug a Maglite from my pack. Blood pounded hard below my throat.
“Easy!” I aimed a finger at his nose.
He practically dragged me out of the Jeep and up the steps.
“The place is empty.”
I tried to read Crowe's face, but it was registering nothing. No surprise, disgust, uneasiness. It was impossible to guess her reaction or emotion.
“Better leave the dog here.”
I tied Boyd to the porch railing. Clicking on the flashlight, I followed her inside.
The air that hit me was not as musty as I expected. It smelled of smoke and mildew and something sweet.
My olfactory lobe scanned its database. Church.
The lobe separated into components. Flowers. Incense.
The front door opened directly into a parlor that spanned the entire width of the house. Slowly, I swept my light from right to left. I could make out sofas, armchairs, and occasional tables, grouped in clusters and draped with sheets. Floor-to-ceiling bookshelves covered two sides.
A stone fireplace filled the room's northern wall, an ornate mirror decorated its southern. In the dim glass I could see my beam slide among the shrouded shapes, our own two images creeping with it.
We progressed slowly, taking the house a room at a time. Dust motes swirled in the pale yellow shaft, and an occasional moth fluttered across like a startled animal in headlights on a two-lane black-top. Behind us, the deputy held his shotgun raised. Crowe clutched her gun double-handed, close to her cheek.
The parlor opened onto a narrow hallway. Staircase on the right, dining room on the left, kitchen straight ahead.
The dining room was furnished with nothing but a highly polished rectangular table and matching chairs. I counted. Eight at each side, one at each end. Eighteen.
The kitchen was in back, its door standing wide open.
Porcelain sink. Pump. Stove and refrigerator that had seen more birthdays than I had. I pointed to the appliances.
“Must be a generator.”
I heard the sound of voices below, and knew her deputies were in the basement.
Upstairs, a hallway led straight down the middle of the house. Four small bedrooms radiated from the central artery, each with two sets of homemade bunks. A small spiral staircase led from the end of the hall to a third-floor attic. Tucked under the eaves were two more cots.
“Jesus,” said Crowe. “Looks like Spin and Marty at the Triple R.”
It reminded me of the Heaven's Gate cult in San Diego. I held my tongue.
We were circling back down when either George or Bobby appeared on the main staircase at the far end of the hall. The man was flushed and perspiring heavily.
“Sheriff, you gotta see the basement.”
“What is it, Bobby?”
A bead of sweat broke from his hairline and rolled down the side of his face. He backhanded it with a jerky gesture.
“I'll be goddamned if I know.”