A SET OF WOODEN STAIRS SHOT STRAIGHT FROM THE KITCHEN down to an underground cellar. The sheriff ordered Deputy Nameless to remain topside while the rest of us went down.
Bobby led, I followed, Crowe brought up the rear. George waited at the bottom, flashlight darting like a klieg on opening night.
As we descended, the air went from cool to refrigerator cold, and murky dimness gave way to pitch-black. I heard a click behind me, saw Crowe's beam at my feet.
We gathered at the bottom, listening.
No scurrying feet. No whirring wings. I aimed my light into the darkness.
We were in a large windowless room with a plank ceiling and cement floor. Three sides were plaster, the fourth formed by the escarpment at the back of the house. Centered in the cliff-side wall was a heavy wooden door.
When I stepped backward, my arm brushed fabric. I spun and my beam swung down a row of pegs, each holding an identical red garment. Handing my flashlight to George, I unhooked and held one up. It was a hooded robe, the type worn by monks.
“Holy mother of Jesus.” I heard Bobby wipe his face. Or cross himself.
I retrieved my flash, and Crowe and I probed the room, spotlighted by George and Bobby.
A full sweep produced nothing indigenous to a basement. No worktable. No Peg-Board hung with tools. No gardening equipment. No laundry tub. No cobwebs, mouse droppings, or dead crickets.
“Pretty damn clean down here.” My voice echoed off cement and stone.
“Look at this.” George angled his beam to where plaster met ceiling.
A bearlike monster leered from the darkness, its body covered with gaping, bloody mouths. Below the animal was one word: Baxbakualanuxsiwae.
“Francis Bacon?” I asked, more to myself than to my companions.
“Bacon painted people and snarling dogs, but never anything like this.” Crowe's voice was hushed.
George moved his light to the next wall, and another monster stared down. Lion mane, bulging eyes, mouth wide to devour a headless infant gripped between its hands.
“That's a bad copy of one of Goya's Black Paintings,” Crowe said. “I've seen it in the Prado in Madrid.”
The more I got to know the Swain County sheriff, the more she impressed me.
“Who is that creep?” George asked.
“One of the Greek gods.”
A third mural depicted a raft with billowed sail. Dead and dying men littered the deck and dangled overboard into the sea.
“Enchanting,” said George.
Crowe had no comment as we crossed to the rock wall.
The door was held in place by black wrought-iron hinges, drilled into stone and cemented in place. A segment of chain connected a circular wrought-iron handle to a vertical steel bar adjacent to the frame. The padlock looked shiny and new, and I could see fresh scars in the granite.
“This was added recently.”
“Step back,” Crowe ordered.
As we withdrew, our beams widened, illuminating words carved above the lintel. I played my light over them.
Fay ce que voudras
“French?” Crowe asked, sliding her flashlight into her belt.
“Old French, I think....”
“Recognize the gargoyles?”
A figure decorated each corner of the lintel. The male was labeled “Harpocrates,” the female “Angerona.”
Crowe's gun exploded twice, and the smell of cordite filled the air. She stepped forward, yanked, and the chain slithered loose. There was no resistance when she lifted the latch.
She pulled on the handle and the door opened outward. Cold air rolled over us, smelling of dark hollows, sightless creatures, and epochs of time underground.
“Maybe it's time to bring him down,” said Crow.
I nodded, and double-stepped up the stairs.
Boyd showed his usual exuberance at being included, prancing and snapping the air. He lapped my hand, then danced beside me into the house. Nothing on the ground floor dampened his delight.
Starting down the basement steps, I felt his body tense beside my leg.
I added an extra coil to the wrap around my hand, and allowed him to pull me down the steps and across toward Crowe.
Three feet short of the door he exploded, lunging and barking as he had at the wall. Cold prickled up my spine and across my scalp.
“All right, keep him over there,” said Crowe.
Grabbing his collar with both hands, I dragged Boyd back and gave Bobby the leash. Boyd continued to growl loudly and attempted to pull Bobby forward. I rejoined Crowe.
My flash revealed a cavelike tunnel with a series of alcoves to either side. The floor was dirt, the ceiling and walls solid rock. Height to the tunnel's arched top was approximately six feet, width was about four feet. Length was impossible to tell. Beyond five yards, it was a black hole.
My pulse had not slowed since I'd entered the house. It now went for a personal best.
Slowly we crept forward, our beams probing the floor, the ceiling, the walls, the recesses. Some were nothing more than shallow indentations. Others were good-sized caves with vertical metal bars and central gates at their mouths.
“Wine cellars?” Crowe's question sounded muffled in the narrow space.
“Wouldn't there be shelving?”
“Check this out.”
Crowe illuminated a name, then another, and another, chiseled the length of the tunnel. She read them aloud as we progressed.
“Sawney Beane. Innocent III. Dionysus. Moctezuma.... Weird bedfellows. A pope, an Aztec emperor, and the party meister himself.”
“Who's Sawney Beane?” I asked.
“Hell if I kno—”
Her beam left the wall and shot straight into nothing. She threw out an arm, catching me across the chest. I froze.
Our lights leapt to the dirt at our feet. No drop-off.
We rounded the corner and inched forward, sweeping our beams from side to side. I could tell from the sound of the air that we had entered a large chamber of some sort. We were circling its perimeter wall.
The names continued. Thyestes. Polyphemus. Christie o' the Cleek. Cronus. I recognized no one from Veckhoff 's diary.
Like the tunnel, the chamber gave onto a number of alcoves, some with bars, others ungated. Directly opposite our entrance point we found a wooden door, similar to that at the head of the tunnel, and secured with the same chain-and-padlock arrangement. Crowe dealt with it in the same way.
As the door swung inward, cold, foul air slithered out. Behind me I could hear Boyd barking as if possessed.
The odor of putrefaction can be altered by the mode of death, sweetened by some poisons, tinted with pear or almond or garlic by others. It can be retarded by chemicals, augmented by insect activity. But the essence is unmistakable, a heavy, fetid mix that heralds the presence of rotting flesh.
Something dead lay in that alcove.
We entered and circled left, keeping to the wall as we had in the outer chamber. Five feet in, my beam caught an irregularity on the floor. Crowe saw it at the same time.
We focused our lights on a patch of coarse, dark soil.
Wordlessly, I handed my Maglite to Crowe and pulled a collapsible spade from my backpack. Keeping my left hand on the stone wall, I squatted and scraped at the ground with the side of the blade.
Crowe holstered her gun, hooked her hat to her belt, and trained twin beams on the ground before me.
The stain gave way easily, revealing a boundary between freshly turned earth and hard-packed floor. The smell of decay increased as I lifted soil and laid it to the side.
Within minutes I hit something soft and pale blue.
“Looks like denim.” Crowe's eyes glistened, and her skin gleamed amber in the pale yellow light.
I followed the faded fabric, lengthening the opening.
Levi's, contoured around a scarecrow leg. I worked my way down to a shriveled brown foot, angled ninety degrees at the ankle.
“That's it.” Crowe's voice caused my hand to jump.
“This is no airplane passenger.”
“I don't want a bad crime scene. We're shut down until I have a warrant.”
I didn't argue. The victim in that pit deserved to have his or her story told in court. I would do nothing to compromise a potential prosecution.
I rose and tapped my spade against the wall, carefully removing adhering soil. Then I folded the blade, stuck it in my pack, and reached for my light.
On the hand off, the beam shot across the alcove and glinted off something in the farthest recess.
“What the hell's that?” I asked, squinting into the dark.
“We should hit your magistrate with everything we can.”
I picked my way toward the point where I'd seen the flash. Crowe hesitated a moment, followed.
A long bundle lay tucked against the base of the wall. The bundle was wrapped in shower curtains, one transparent, one translucent blue, and tied with several lengths of rope. I approached and ran my light over the surface.
Though blurred by layers of plastic, I could make out details in the clear upper half. Matted hair, a red plaid shirt, ghostly white hands bound at the wrists. I pulled gloves from my pack, snapped them on, and gently rolled the bundle.
Crowe's hand flew to her mouth.
A face, purple and bloated, eyes milky and half closed. Cracked lips, a bulging tongue pressed to the plastic like a giant leech.
Noticing an oval object at the base of the throat, I brought my light close. A pendant. I pulled out my knife and slit the plastic. The hiss of escaping gas was followed by an overpowering stench of putrefaction. My stomach recoiled, but I didn't pull back.
Holding my breath, I teased back the plastic with the tip of the knife.
A male silhouette was clearly visible on a small silver medal, arms crossed piously at the throat. Engraved letters formed a halo around the head. I held the light obliquely to bring out the name.
We had found the missing fisherman with the ailing throat. George Adair.
This time I suggested a different route. Crowe agreed. Leaving Bobby and George to secure the site, the sheriff and I drove to Bryson City and pulled Byron McMahon from a football game he was watching on the parlor TV at High Ridge House. Together we prepared an affidavit, which the special agent took directly to a federal magistrate judge in Asheville.
In less than two hours McMahon called Crowe. Based on the probability of a hate crime, and on the possible involvement of federal lands, due to the proximity of a reservation and national parks, a search warrant had been issued.
It fell to me to phone Larke Tyrell.
I found the ME at home, and, from background noise, guessed he was involved with the same football game.
Though Larke's words were cordial, I could tell my call unnerved him. I did not take time to assuage his anxiety, or to apologize for the lateness of the hour.
The ME listened while I explained the situation. Finally, I stopped. Silence stretched so long I thought we'd been disconnected.
When he spoke again, his tone had changed.
“I want you to handle this. What do you need?”
I told him.
“Can you pick it up at the incident morgue?”
“Do you want personnel?”
“Who's still there?”
“Maggie and Stan.”
Maggie Burroughs and Stan Fryeburg were death investigators with the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner in Chapel Hill, deployed to Bryson City for the processing of Air TransSouth 228. Both were graduates of my body recovery workshop at the university, and both were excellent.
“Tell them to be ready at seven.”
“This has nothing to do with the plane crash, Larke.”
“I know that. But these are dead bodies in my state.”
There was another long pause. I heard an overwrought announcer, a cheering crowd.
I did not help him out.
“This has gone too goddamned far.”
I listened to a dial tone.
What the hell did that mean?
I had other things to worry about.
The next day I was up at dawn, at the Arthur house by seven-thirty. The scene had been transformed overnight. A sheriff 's deputy now stood guard at the kudzu gate, others at the front and back doors. A generator had been activated, and every light in the house was on.
When I arrived, George was helping McMahon load books and papers into cardboard boxes. Bobby was covering the mantel with white powder. As I passed on my way to the kitchen, McMahon winked and wished me good luck.
I spent the next four days like a miner, descending to the basement at dawn, surfacing at noon for a sandwich and coffee, then descending again until after dark. Another generator and lights were brought in to illuminate my underground world, so day and night became indistinguishable.
Tommy Albright arrived on the morning of day one. After examining and photographing the bundle I was certain contained George Adair, he released the body for transport to the Harris Regional Hospital in Sylva.
While Maggie worked the decomp stain inside the courtyard wall, Stan helped me photograph the cellar floor. Then we exhumed the alcove burial, slowly exposing the corpse, recording body position and grave outline, and screening every particle of dirt.
The victim lay facedown on a gray wool blanket, one arm twisted beneath the chest, the other curled around the head. Decomposition was advanced, the organs soup, the head and hands largely skeletonized.
When the remains were fully uncovered and documented, we began removal. Transferring the cadaver to a body bag, I noted that the left pants leg was badly torn, the leg missing below the knee.
I also noticed concentric fractures in the right temporo-parietal region of the skull. Linear cracks radiated up the sides of the central depression, turning the whole into a spiderweb of fragmented bone.
“Somebody really blasted this guy.” Stan had stopped screening to look at the skull.
My outrage was building as it always did. The victim had been dealt a skull-shattering blow, then dumped in a hole like last year's mulch. What kind of monster did such things?
Another thought pierced through my anger.
This corpse was buried only inches below the ground surface. Though putrefied, considerable soft tissue remained, indicating a relatively recent death. Did earlier victims lie beneath? In other alcoves? I kept my eyes and mind open.
Maggie joined us in the basement on day two, having excavated a ten-foot square to a depth of twelve inches around and below the courtyard stain. Though the job was tedious, her efforts paid off. Two isolated teeth turned up in the screen.
While Stan finished sifting dirt from the alcove burial, Maggie and I probed every inch of the cellar floor, testing for the presence of buried objects and for differences in soil density. We found eight suspicious locations, two in the original alcove, two in the main chamber, and four in a dead-end tunnel off the chamber's west side.
By late afternoon we'd dug a test trench at each location. The suspect spots in the main room yielded only sterile soil. The other six sites produced human bone.
I explained to Stan and Maggie how we would proceed. I would request help from the sheriff 's department with photography and screening. Stan would continue in the alcove. Maggie and I would begin with the tunnel sites.
I directed my crew with professional detachment, the calm of my voice and the composure of my face wildly out of sync with my pounding heart. It was my worst nightmare. But what was that nightmare? How many more bodies would we unearth, and why were they there?
Maggie and I were excavating the first two tunnel disturbances when a figure appeared at the entrance, caught between our spots and a light in the main chamber. I couldn't make out the silhouette, and wondered if a member of the transport team was coming to ask a question.
One step and I knew.
Larke Tyrell walked toward me, gait precise, back ramrod straight. I rose but did not greet him.
“I've been trying your portable.”
“The press have me on autodial.”
He did not pursue it.
“What's the count?”
“At this point, two decomposed bodies and two skeletons. There's bone in at least four other locations.”
His eyes moved from my face to the pits where Maggie and I were uncovering skeletons, each with tightly flexed limbs.
“They look like prehistoric bundle burials.”
“Yes, but they're not.”
His gaze swung back to me.
“You would know that.”
“Tommy sent the two decomps to Harris Regional, but they're not going to want their autopsy room tied up. I'll order everything transferred to the incident morgue and keep the place operational for as long as you need.”
I did not reply.
“You will do this?”
“Everything is under control?”
“Here it is.”
“I'm looking forward to your report.”
“I have excellent penmanship.”
“I thought you'd like to know that the last of the Air TransSouth passengers has been identified.”
“Petricelli and the students in 22A and B?”
“Petricelli, yes. And one of the students.”
“Two days ago the young man assigned to seat 22B phoned his father from Costa Rica.”
“He wasn't on the plane?”
“While in the waiting area, a man offered him a thousand bucks for his boarding pass.”
“Why didn't he come forward earlier?”
“He was in the rain forest and completely cut off, never heard about the crash until he returned to San José. Then he hesitated a few days before calling home, knowing the jig was up for torpedoing the semester.”
“Who is the substitute passenger?”
“The unluckiest bastard in the universe.”
“A tax accountant from Buckhead. We found him through a thumbprint.”
He looked at me a very long moment. I stared back. The tension between us was palpable.
“This is not the place, Tempe, but we do need to talk. I am a fair man, but I have acted unfairly. There have been pressures.”
Though Maggie kept her eyes down, the rhythm of her trowel changed. I knew she was listening.
“Even wise people make unwise choices.”
With that, he was gone.
Again, I wondered what he meant. Whose unwise choices? Mine? His? Someone else's?
The next forty-eight hours were spent with trowels and brushes and human bones. My team dug and documented while Crowe's deputies hauled and sifted dirt. Ryan brought me coffee and doughnuts and news of the crash. McMahon brought me reports on the operation upstairs. I gave him Mr. Veckhoff 's diary, and explained my notes and theories during lunch breaks.
I forgot the names engraved in stone. I forgot the strange caricatures watching silently from walls and ceilings. I forgot the bizarre underground chambers and caves in which I worked.
We recovered eight people in all, the last on Halloween.
The following day we learned who blew up Air TransSouth 228.