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Chapter 30


“Who the hell are these lunatics?” Ryan's question broke the silence.

McMahon responded.

“The H&F Investment Group is buried under more layers than Olduvai Gorge. Veckhoff 's dead, so he's not talking. Following up on your suggestion, Tempe, we tracked down Rollins and Birkby through their fathers. Rollins lives in Greenville, teaches English at a community college. Birkby owns a chain of discount furniture stores, has homes in Rock Hill and Hilton Head. Each gentleman tells the same story: inherited his interest in H&F, knows nothing about the property, never visited there.”

I heard a door open, voices in the corridor.

“W. G. Davis is a retired investment banker living in Banner Elk. F. M. Payne is a philosophy professor at Wake Forest. Warren's an attorney in Fayetteville. We found the counselor on his way to the airport, had to spoil his little getaway to Antigua.”

“Do they admit to knowing one another?”

“Everyone tells the same story. H&F is strictly business, they never met. Never set foot on the property.”

“What about prints inside the house?”

“The recovery team lifted zillions. We're running them but it will take time.”

“Any police records?”

“Payne, the professor, was busted for pot in seventy-four. Otherwise, nothing came up. But we're checking every cell these guys have ever shed. If one of them peed on a tree at Woodstock, we'll get a sample. These assholes are dirty as hell, and they're going down for murder.”

Larke Tyrell appeared in the doorway. Deep lines creased his forehead. McMahon greeted him, went in search of additional seating. Tyrell spoke to me.

“I'm glad you're here.”

I said nothing.

McMahon returned with a folding metal chair. Tyrell sat, his spine so erect it made no contact with the backrest.

“What can I do for you, Doc?” McMahon.

Tyrell removed a handkerchief, wiped his forehead, then refolded the linen in a perfect square.

“I have information that is highly sensitive.”

The Andy Griffith eyes shifted from face to face, but he did not say the obvious.

“I'm sure you are all aware that Parker Davenport died of a gunshot wound yesterday. The wound appears to be self-inflicted, but there are disturbing elements, including an extremely high level of trifluoperazine in his blood.”

We all looked blank.

“The common name is Stelazine. The drug is used in the treatment of psychotic anxiety and agitated depressions. Davenport had no prescription for Stelazine, and his doctor knows of no reason he would be taking it.”

“A man in his position wouldn't have trouble getting what he wanted.” McMahon.

“That's true, sir.”

Tyrell cleared his throat.

“Minute traces of trifluoperazine were also detected in the body of Primrose Hobbs, but immersion and decomposition had complicated the picture, so a definitive finding was not possible.”

“Does Sheriff Crowe know this?” I asked.

“She knows about Hobbs. I'll tell her about Davenport when I leave here.”

“Stelazine wasn't found among Hobbs's belongings.”

“Nor did she have a prescription.”

My stomach tightened. I had never seen Primrose take so much as an aspirin.

“Equally disturbing are phone calls made by Davenport on the evening of his death,” Larke went on.

Tyrell handed McMahon a list.

“You may recognize some of the numbers.”

McMahon scanned the printout, then looked up.

“Sonofabitch. The lieutenant governor phoned the H&F officers just hours before blowing his brains out?”

“What?” I blurted.

“Or had them blown out.” Ryan.

McMahon passed me the list. Six numbers, five names. W. G. Davis, F. M. Payne, F. L. Warren, C. A. Birkby, P. H. Rollins.

“What was the sixth call?”

“The number traces to a rented cabin in Cherokee. Sheriff Crowe is checking it out.”

“Tempe, show Dr. Tyrell what you just showed me.”

McMahon reached for his phone.

“It's time to run these bastards to ground.”

Larke wanted to examine the marks firsthand, so we went straight to the morgue. Though I'd had nothing since coffee at seven, and it was after one, I had no appetite. I kept seeing Primrose, wondering what she'd discovered. What threat she'd posed. And a new question: Was her murder linked to the death of the lieutenant governor?

Larke and I spent an hour going over the bones, the ME looking and listening closely, now and then asking a question. We'd just finished when my cell phone rang.

Lucy Crowe was in Waynesville but had something she needed to discuss. Could we meet around nine at High Ridge House? I agreed.

As we were disconnecting she asked a question.

“Do you know an archaeologist named Simon Midkiff?”


“He may be involved with this H&F bunch.”


“His was the sixth number Davenport dialed before his death. If he tries to contact you, agree to nothing.”

As we talked, Larke photocopied the pictures and articles. When he was done, I told him what Crowe had said. He posed a single question.


“Because they're crazy,” I answered, still distracted by Crowe's comment about Midkiff.

“And Parker Davenport was one of them.”

He slid the photocopies into his briefcase, impaled me with exhausted eyes.

“He tried professional sabotage to keep you from that house.” Larke swept an arm in the direction of the tables. “To divert you from this.”

I did not reply.

“And I was suckered in.”

Still, I remained silent.

“Is there anything I can say to you?”

“There are things you can say to my colleagues.”

“Letters will go to the AAFS, the ABFA, and the NDMS immediately.” He grabbed my wrist. “And I will phone the head of each organization first thing Monday to explain personally.”

“And the press?” Though I knew he was suffering, I could force no warmth into my voice. His disloyalty had hurt me, professionally and personally.

“That will come. I must determine how best to handle it.”

Best for whom? I wondered.

“If it's any consolation, Earl Bliss acted on my orders. He never believed anything against you.”

“Most who know me did not.”

He released my arm but his eyes held firm. Overnight he'd come to look like a tired old man.

“Tempe, I was trained as a military man. I believe in respecting the chain of command and carrying out the lawful orders of my superiors. That predisposition led me not to question things I should have questioned. The abuse of power is a terrible thing. Failure to resist corrupting pressure is equally contemptible. It's time for this old dog to rouse and get off the porch.”

I felt a deep sadness as I watched him leave. Larke and I had been friends for many years. I wondered if we could ever be friends again.

As I made coffee, my thoughts shifted to Simon Midkiff. Of course. It all made sense. His intense interest in the crash site. The lies about excavating in Swain County. The photo with Parker Davenport at Charlie Wayne Tramper's funeral. He was one of them.

A sudden flashback. The black Volvo that had almost run me down. The man at the wheel had looked vaguely familiar. Could it have been Simon Midkiff?

I was completing my report on Edna Farrell when my cell phone rang a second time.

“Sir Francis Dashwood was a prolific guy.”

The statement came from a different galaxy than the one in which my mind was orbiting.

“I'm sorry?”

“It's Anne. I was organizing stuff from our London trip and came across a pamphlet Ted bought at the West Wycombe caves.”

“Anne, this is not—”

“There are gobs of Dashwoods still around.”


“Descendants of Sir Francis, later known as Lord Le Despencer, of course. Just for fun I popped the name Prentice Dashwood into a genealogical site where I'm registered. I couldn't believe how many hits I got. One was particularly interesting.”

I waited.


I cracked.

“Do we do this with twenty questions?”

“Prentice Elmore Dashwood, one of Sir Frank's many descendants, left England in 1921. He opened a haberdashery in Albany, New York, made bundles of money, and eventually retired.”

“That's it?”

“During his years in America, Dashwood wrote and self-published dozens of pamphlets, one of which recounted tales of his great-great-great-something, Sir Francis Dashwood the Second.”

“And the other pamphlets?” If I didn't ask, this would take forever.

“You name it. The song lines of the Australian Aboriginals. The oral traditions of the Cherokee. Camping. Fly-fishing. Greek mythology. A brief ethnography of the Carib Indians. Prentice was quite the Renaissance man. He penned three booklets and several articles that focused exclusively on the Appalachian Trail. Apparently Big P was a real mover in getting the trail started back in the twenties.”

Oh? A mecca for hikers and trekkers, the AT starts at Mount Katahdin in Maine and runs along the Appalachian ridgeline to Springer Mountain in Georgia. Much of the trail lies in the Great Smoky Mountains. Including Swain County.

“Are you still there?”

“I'm here. Did Dashwood spend time here in North Carolina?”

“He wrote five pamphlets on the Great Smokies.” I heard paper rustle. “Trees. Flowers. Fauna. Folklore. Geology.”

I remembered Anne's tale of her visit to West Wycombe, pictured the caves under the H&F house. Could this guy Anne was talking about be the Prentice Dashwood of Swain County, North Carolina? It was a striking name. Could there be a connection to the British Dashwoods?

“What else did you find out about Prentice Dashwood?”

“Not a thing. But I can tell you that old Uncle Francis hung with a wild crowd back in the eighteenth century. Called themselves the Monks of Medmenham. Listen to the list. Lord Sandwich, who at one point commanded the Royal Navy, John Wilkes—”

“The politician?”

“Yep. William Hogarth, the painter, and poets Paul Whitehead, Charles Churchill, and Robert Lloyd.”

“Impressive roster.”

“Very. Everyone was a member of Parliament or the House of Lords. Or a poet or whatever. Our own Ben Franklin dropped in now and then, though he was never an official member.”

“What did these guys do?”

“Some accounts claim they engaged in satanic rites. According to the current Sir Francis, author of the booklet we picked up on our trip, the monks were just jolly fellows who got together to celebrate Venus and Bacchus. I take that to mean women and wine.”

“They held wild parties in the caves?”

“And at Medmenham Abbey. The current Sir Francis admits to his ancestor's sexual frolics but denies the devil worship. He suggests the satanism rumor came from the boys' somewhat irreverent attitude toward Christianity. They also referred to themselves as the Knights of Saint Francis, for example.”

I could hear her biting an apple, then chewing.

“Everyone else called them the Hell Fire Club.”

The name hit me like a sledgehammer.

“What did you say?”

“The Hell Fire Club. Big in Ireland in the 1730s and 1740s. Same deal. Overprivileged devos mocking religion and getting drunk and laid.”

Anne had a way of cutting to the quick.

“There were attempts to suppress the clubs, but they weren't effective. When Dashwood gathered his little group of philanderers, the label Hell Fire naturally transferred.”

Hell Fire. H&F.

I swallowed.

“How long is this booklet?”

“Thirty-four pages.”

“Can you fax me a copy?”

“Sure. I can get two pages on one sheet.”

I gave her the number and went back to my report, forcing myself to concentrate. Within minutes the fax rang, screeched, and bonged, then began to spit out pages. I stayed with my description of Edna Farrell's facial trauma. Some time later the machine reengaged. Again, I resisted the impulse to rush to it and gather Anne's pages.

When I'd completed the Farrell report, I began another, a million thoughts screaming for ascendancy. Though I tried to focus, images broke through again and again.

Primrose Hobbs. Parker Davenport. Prentice Dashwood. Sir Francis. The Hell Fire Club. H&F. Was anything connected? The evidence was growing. There must be a connection.

Had Prentice Dashwood rekindled his ancestor's idea of an elitistboys' club here in the Carolina mountains? Had the members been more than hedonistic dilettantes? How much more? I pictured the cut marks, suppressed a shudder.

At four the guard came in to say that a deputy had fallen sick, another was stranded with a malfunctioning cruiser. Crowe sent her apologies but needed him to control a domestic situation. I assured him I'd be fine.

I worked on, the silence of the empty morgue wrapping around me like a living thing except for the hum of a refrigerator. My breath, my heartbeat, my fingers clicking the keyboard. Outside, branches scraped windowpanes high overhead. A train whistle. A dog. Crickets. Frogs.

No car horns. No traffic noises. No living person for miles.

My sympathetic nervous system kept the adrenaline in front row, center. I made frequent errors, jumped at every squeak and tap. More than once I wished for Boyd's company.

By seven I'd finished with Farrell, Odell, Tramper, and Adams. My eyes burned, my back ached, and a dull headache told me that my blood sugar was in the cellar.

I copied my files to floppy, closed down my laptop, and went to collect Anne's fax.

Though I was anxious to read about the eighteenth-century Sir Francis, I was too tired, too hungry, and too edgy to be objective. I decided to return to High Ridge House, walk Boyd, talk with Crowe, then read the pamphlet in the comfort and safety of my bed.

I was gathering pages when I heard what sounded like gravel crunching.

I froze, listening.

Tires? Footsteps?

Fifteen seconds. Thirty.


“Time to boogie,” I said aloud.

Tension made my movements jerky, and I dropped several papers from the basket. Gathering them from the floor, I noticed that one differed. The type was larger, the text arranged in columns.

I flipped through the other pages. Anne's cover sheet. The front of the pamphlet. The rest were brochure text, two pages to a sheet, each numbered sequentially.

I remembered the machine's pause. Could the odd page have arrived as a separate transmission? I looked but found no return fax number.

Taking everything to my office, I placed Anne's material in my briefcase and lay the mismatched sheet on my desk. As I read the contents, my adrenaline rocketed even higher.

The left column contained code names, the middle one real names. Dates appeared after some individuals, forming an incomplete third column.

Ilus Henry Arlen Preston 1943

Khaffre Sheldon Brodie 1949

Omega A. A. Birkby 1959

Narmer Martin Patrick Veckhoff

Sinuhe C. A. Birkby

Itzmana John Morgan 1972

Arrigatore F. L. Warren

Rho William Glenn Sherman 1979

Chac John Franklin Battle

Ometeotl Parker Davenport

Only one name was unfamiliar. John Franklin Battle.

Or was it? Where had I heard that name?

Think, Brennan. Think.

John Battle.

No. That's not right.

Franklin Battle.


Frank Battle.

The magistrate who'd stonewalled the search warrant!

Would a mere magistrate qualify for membership? Had Battle been protecting the H&F property? Had he sent me the fax? Why?

And why was the most recent date more than twenty years old? Was the list incomplete? Why?

Then a terrifying thought.

Who knew I was here?


Again I froze, listening for the faintest indicator of another presence. Picking up a scalpel, I slipped from my office to the main autopsy room.

Six skeletons stared upward, fingers and toes splayed, jaws silent beside their heads. I checked the computer and X-ray sections, the staff kitchenette, the makeshift conference room. My heart beat so loudly it seemed to overpower the stillness.

I was poking my head into the men's toilet when my cell phone sounded for the third time. I nearly screamed from the tension.

A voice, smooth as a double latte.

“You're dead.”

Then empty air.


@by txiuqw4

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