I LEFT C HARLOTTE AT DAWN ON F RIDAY AND DROVE WEST THROUGH heavy fog. The shifting vapors lightened as I climbed toward the Eastern Continental Divide, vanished outside Asheville.
Leaving Highway 74 at Bryson City, I drove up Veterans' Boulevard, past the cutoff to the Fryemont Inn, turned right on Main, and parked opposite the old courthouse, now a senior citizens' center. I sat a moment watching sunlight glisten on its little gold dome, and thought of those seniors whose bones I'd unearthed.
I pictured a tall, gangly man, blind and nearly deaf; a fragile old woman with a crooked face. I imagined them on these same streets all those years ago. I wanted to put my arms around them, to tell each of them that things were being put right.
And I thought about those who had perished on Air TransSouth 228. So many stories had only begun. Graduations not attended. Birthdays not celebrated. Voyages not taken. Lives obliterated because of one fatal voyage.
I took my time walking to the fire station. I'd spent a month in Bryson City, had come to know it well. I was leaving now, my work completed, but a few questions remained.
When I arrived McMahon was packing the contents of his cubicle into cardboard boxes.
“Breaking camp?” I asked from the doorway.
“Hey, girl, you're back in town.” He cleared a chair, gestured me into it. “How are you feeling?”
“Bruised and scraped but fully functional.”
Amazingly, I'd sustained no serious injury during my romp in the woods with Ralph Stover. A slight concussion had sent me to the hospital for a couple of days, then Ryan had driven me to Charlotte. Assured I was fine, he'd flown back to Montreal, and I'd spent the rest of the week on the couch with Birdie.
“Mind if I keep working?”
“Has someone regaled you with the whole strange tale?”
“There are still gaps. Take it from the top.”
“H&F was some kind of hybrid between Mensa and the Billionaire Boys Club. It didn't start out that way, was originally just a bunch of businessmen, doctors, and professors coming to the mountains to hunt and fish.”
“Back in the thirties.”
“Right. They'd camp on Edward Arthur's land, hunt during the day, drink and party all night. Applaud themselves on their extraordinary intelligence. The group got to be very close over the years, eventually formed a secret society which they called H&F.”
“The founding father being Prentice Dashwood.”
“Dashwood was the first prior, whatever the hell that means.”
“H&F stands for Hell Fire,” I said. “Hell Fire Clubs flourished in eighteenth-century England and Ireland, the most famous being the brainchild of Sir Francis Dashwood. Prentice Dashwood of Albany, New York, was a descendant of Sir Francis. Mama was an unnamed Hell Fire lady.” I'd done a lot of reading during my time on the couch. “Sir Francis had four sons named Francis.”
“Sounds like George Foreman.”
“The man was proud of his name.”
“Or the least creative progenitor in history.”
“Anyway, the original Hell Fires had a healthy skepticism for religion and loved lampooning the church. They referred to themselves as the Knights of Saint Francis, to their parties as ‘devotions,’ to their steward as ‘prior.’”
“Who were these assholes?”
“The rich and powerful of Merry Old England. Ever hear of the Bohemian Club?”
McMahon shook his head.
“It's a highly select, all-male club whose members have included every Republican president since Calvin Coolidge. They gather for two weeks every year at a secluded campground in Sonoma County, California, called the Bohemian Grove.”
McMahon paused, a folder in each hand.
“That does ring a bell. The few journalists that have gotten in over the years have been thrown out and their stories killed.”
“You're not suggesting our political and industrial bigwigs plot murder at these rendezvous?”
“Of course not. But the concept is similar: powerful men camping in seclusion. Bohemian Club members are even reported to use mock-druidic rituals.”
McMahon taped a carton, slid it across the floor, and placed another on his desk.
“We've netted all but one of the H&F members, and we're accumulating the story bit by bit, but it's slow. Needless to say, no one's enthused about talking to us, and everyone is lawyered to the gills. Each of the six officers will be charged with multiple counts of homicide, but it's unclear what the culpability is for the rest of the pack. Midkiff claims only the leaders participated in murder and cannibalism.”
“Has Midkiff been given immunity?” I asked.
He nodded. “Most of our info is coming from him.”
“He sent the code name fax?”
“Yes. He'd reconstructed what he remembered. Midkiff left the group in the early seventies, claims he was never involved in any killing. Didn't know about Stover. He says he reached a point last week where he couldn't live with himself anymore.”
McMahon began transferring papers from a file cabinet to the box.
“And he was afraid for you.”
I took a moment to absorb that.
“Where is he now?”
“The judge didn't think he was a flight risk or in personal danger, so he's out. He's still living in a rental cabin in Cherokee.”
“Why did Parker Davenport call Midkiff before shooting himself?”
“To warn him that the lid was about to blow. Apparently the two remained friends after Midkiff withdrew from H&F. It was largely because of the lieutenant governor that Midkiff remained unmolested all these years. Davenport kept the club convinced that Midkiff posed no threat; in return, Midkiff kept his mouth shut.”
“What has he told you?”
“H&F had eighteen members at any given time. Of those, six lucky boys made up the inner circle. Very exclusive. Only when a member of that inner circle died was a replacement chosen from the group at large. The initiation banquet was black tie; red, hooded robe; dessert provided by the inductee.”
“Yes. Remember the Hamatsa you told me about?”
I nodded, too revolted to reply.
“Same deal. Only our gentlemen cannibals restricted themselves to sharing the flesh of one thigh from each victim. It was like a blood brotherhood pact. Though the whole club met regularly at the Arthur house, Midkiff swears that only members of the inner circle knew what really went on at these initiations.”
I thought of Ralph Stover's words to me. “I found my offering.”
“Tucker Adams was killed in 1943 when inner-circle member Henry Arlen Preston died, and Anthony Allen Birkby joined the elite. When Sheldon Brodie drowned in 1949, Martin Patrick Veckhoff was the new inner-circle choice and Edna Farrell was his victim. Anthony Allen Birkby perished in a car wreck a decade later, his son was given the inner-circle nod, and Charlie Wayne Tramper ended up on the Communion table.”
“Wasn't Tramper killed by a bear?”
“Young Birkby may have cheated a bit. The Tramper funeral was where Parker Davenport met Simon Midkiff, by the way. Midkiff knew Tramper through his research on the Cherokee.”
“Did Midkiff know what had happened to Tramper?”
“Claims he had no clue.”
“How did Midkiff get hooked up with H&F?”
“In 1955 the young professor was newly arrived from England, and had been told to look up Prentice Dashwood, an old family friend. Dashwood recruited Midkiff into H&F.”
“He never made it to the inner circle.”
“But Davenport did.”
“Following the Tramper funeral, Midkiff gradually introduced Davenport to the brothers. The idea of an intellectual elite appealed to Davenport, and he joined up.”
“Even though he was from Swain County, Davenport had never known about the lodge?”
“Not before he joined. Apparently no one did. These guys were amazing at keeping themselves hidden. They'd sneak in and out after dark. Over the years, everyone forgot the place was there.”
“Everyone except old Edward Arthur and Luke Bowman's father.”
“Right.” McMahon perused the contents of a drawer as if unsure whether to pack or discard them.
“And the club put nothing on paper.”
He emptied the drawer into the box, reinserted it in the desk, opened another.
“What is all this shit?” He straightened and looked at me. “Continuing with the chronology, John Morgan died in 1972, Mary Francis Rafferty was killed, and F. L. Warren moved up. By this time, Midkiff was getting disenchanted. He quit shortly after that.”
“So he may not have been a party to any murders.”
“It looks that way. But Davenport's dirty. In 1979 he was chosen to replace William Glenn Sherman in the inner circle. Davenport's canapé was the unidentified black male.”
“Was it significant that the victims were drawn from different races and both sexes?”
“The idea was to maximize the breadth of spiritual intake.”
“Kendall Rollins succumbed to leukemia in 1986 and his son Paul took his place.”
“Albert Odell was the victim?”
McMahon dumped the second drawer.
“What happened with Jeremiah Mitchell and George Adair?”
“Major fuck-up. When Martin Patrick Veckhoff checked out last February, Roger Lee Fairley was slated for coronation. He was informed of the requirements, and Mitchell was grabbed and killed. Fairley's sudden death on the way to the Veckhoff funeral created a problem, and Mitchell was put on ice while the succession issue was resolved.”
“Ralph Stover was told that it would soon be his turn to move from the outer to the inner circle, was advised of the conditions, and was asked to perform a few extra duties. He stored Mitchell's body in a freezer at the Riverbank Inn.”
I suppressed a shudder.
“That's why the volatile fatty acid readings were off.”
“Exactly. In early September Stover was officially proposed to succeed Veckhoff, and Mitchell's body was taken back and placed in the courtyard in preparation for an induction ceremony. That's when things began to unravel. Some within the inner circle opposed Stover's promotion, seeing him as too zealous, too unstable. The dispute dragged on, decomposition began, meaning the body couldn't be used for the ritual and the corpse had to be buried in the cave.”
“But not before a coyote visitation.”
“Stover did the dirty work again?”
“He's our man.”
McMahon upended another drawer, taped the box, and labeled it with a felt-tip pen.
“Anyway, after weeks of wrangling, the Stover faction prevailed. George Adair was abducted on October first. The crash occurred on October fourth.”
“I retrieved the foot on October fifth.”
He stacked the box with the earlier ones and opened a file drawer.
“As you know, Stover also killed Primrose Hobbs. Lucy Crowe found Stelazine in his apartment at the Riverbank Inn. The prescription was written by a Mexican doctor for none other than Parker Davenport. Stover had four capsules in his pocket Sunday night. The same drug he used on Primrose.”
He looked at me.
“She also found a length of wire that matches the garrote from Hobbs's neck.”
The cold fist. It still didn't seem possible that Primrose was dead.
“He told me he did it because he could.”
“An order may have come from the inner circle, or he may have been acting on his own. Perhaps he feared she'd discovered something. He probably stole her key and password to remove the foot from the morgue and alter the file.”
“Has the foot been found?”
“Never will be, I suspect. Hang on.”
McMahon disappeared into the hall, returned with two more empty boxes.
“How can so much crap accumulate in one month?”
“Don't forget the rubber snake.”
I pointed to an artifact on his desk.
“I'm curious how Crowe found me.”
“She and Ryan hit High Ridge House minutes apart Sunday night, well past the time you should have arrived. Finding your car in the lot but no sign of you in the house, they went looking. When they found the dog—”
He glanced up, quickly back to the box. I kept my face neutral.
“Apparently your chow got hold of Stover's wrist before he was shot. Ryan found a medical bracelet with Stover's name on it lying next to the dog's snout. Crowe made the connection based on something Midkiff had told her.”
“The rest is history.”
“The rest is history.”
He threw the snake into the box, changed his mind and took it out.
“Ryan headed back to Quebec?”
Again, I kept my face neutral.
“I don't know the monsieur that well, but his partner's death really turfed him.”
“Throw in the niece, and I'm amazed the guy held it together.”
“Yes.” The niece?
“‘Danielle the Demon,’ he called her.”
McMahon crossed to his jacket and tucked the snake into a pocket.
“Said we'd probably read about the kid in the papers one day.”
I felt a smile tug the corners of my mouth.
At times neutrality is difficult.
I found Simon Midkiff bundled in overcoat, gloves, and muffler, dozing in a rocker on his front stoop. A brimmed cap hid most of his face, and I suddenly thought of another question.
His head snapped up and the watery eyes blinked in confusion.
He wiped a hand across his mouth, and a filament of saliva glistened on wool. Removing the glove, he dug under layers of clothing, withdrew glasses, and slid them onto his nose.
“I'm glad to see you are all right.” Chains looped to either side of his head, throwing delicate shadows across his cheeks. The skin looked pale and paper-thin.
“Can we talk?”
“Of course. Perhaps we should go inside.”
We entered a combination kitchenette–living area with one interior door, which I presumed led to a bedroom and bath. The furnishings were lacquered pine, and looked like they'd come from a home workshop.
Books lined the baseboards, and notebooks and papers covered a table and desk. A dozen boxes were stacked at one end of the room, each marked with a series of archaeological grid numbers.
“That would be nice.”
I watched as he filled a kettle, took Tetley's bags from their paper holders, placed cups on saucers. He seemed frailer than I remembered, more stooped.
“I don't get many visitors.”
“This is lovely. Thank you.”
He led me to an afghan-draped sofa, placed both cups on a coffee table made from a slice of tree trunk, and dragged a chair opposite.
We both drank. Outside, I heard the whiney buzz of an outboard motor on the Oconaluftee River. I waited until he was ready.
“I'm not sure how well I can talk about it.”
“I know what happened, Simon. What I don't understand is why.”
“I wasn't there in the beginning. What I know comes from others.”
“You knew Prentice Dashwood.”
He leaned back, and his eyes shifted to another time.
“Prentice was an insatiable reader with a staggering array of knowledge. There was nothing that didn't interest him. Darwin. Lyell. Newton. Mendelyev. And the philosophers. Hobbs. Aenesidemus. Baumgarten. Wittgenstein. Lao-tzu. He read everything. Archaeology. Ethnology. Physics. Biology. History.”
He interrupted to sip his tea.
“And he was wonderful at spinning yarns. That's how it began. Prentice told stories of his ancestor's Hell Fire Club, describing the members as rakish good fellows who banded together for riotous profanity and intellectual conversation. The idea seemed benign enough. And for a while it was.”
His cup trembled in its saucer as he set it down.
“But Prentice had a darker side. He believed that certain human beings were more valuable than others.” His voice trailed off.
“The intellectually superior,” I prodded.
“Yes. As Prentice aged, his worldview was strongly influenced by his cross-cultural reading on cosmology and cannibalism. His grasp on reality diminished.”
He paused, sorting through things he could say.
“It started out as frivolous blasphemy. No one really believed it.”
“That eating the dead negated the finality of death. That partaking of the flesh of another human being allowed the assimilation of soul, personality, and wisdom.”
“Is that what Dashwood believed?”
One bony shoulder shrugged.
“Perhaps he did. Perhaps he simply used the idea, and for the inner circle the actual act, as a way to keep the club intact. Collective indulgence in the forbidden. The in-group, out-group mindset. Prentice understood that cultural rituals exist to reinforce the unity of those performing them.”
“How did it start?”
“A bloody accident. A young man showed up at the lodge one summer. God knows what he was doing way out there. There was a lot of drinking, a fight, the boy was killed. Prentice proposed that everyone—”
He withdrew a hanky and ran it over his eyes.
“This took place before the war. I learned about it years later when I overheard a conversation that was not for my ears.”
“Prentice cut slivers of muscle from the boy's thigh and required everyone to partake. They had no inner- outer-circle distinction back then. It was a pact. Each was a participant and equally guilty. No one would talk about the boy's death. They buried the body in the woods, the following year the inner circle was formed, and Tucker Adams was killed.”
“Intelligent men accepted this insanity? Educated men with wives, and families, and responsible jobs?”
“Prentice Dashwood was an extraordinarily charismatic man. When he spoke, everything made sense.”
“Cannibalism?” I kept my voice calm.
“Do you have any idea how pervasive the theme of humans eating humans is in Western culture? Human sacrifice is mentioned in the Old Testament, the Rig-Veda. Anthropophagy is central to the plot of many Greek and Roman myths; it's the centerpiece of the Catholic Mass. Look at literature. Jonathan Swift's ‘Modest Proposal’ and Tom Prest's tale of Sweeney Todd. Movies Soylent Green; Fried Green Tomatoes; The Cook, the Thief, His Wife, Her Lover; Jean-Luc Godard's Weekend. And let's not forget the children: Hansel and Gretel, the Gingerbread Man, and various versions of Snow White, Cinderella, and Red Riding Hood. Grandma, what big teeth you have!”
He drew a tremulous breath.
“And, of course, there are the participants of necessity. The Donner party; the rugby team stranded in the Andes; the crew of the yacht Mignonette; Marten Hartwell, the bush pilot marooned in the Arctic. We are fascinated by their tales. And we embrace our famous-for-fifteen-minutes serial killer cannibals with even greater curiosity.”
Another deep breath, exhaled slowly.
“I can't explain it, don't condone it. Prentice made everything sound exotic. We were naughty boys sharing an interest in a wicked topic.”
“Fay ce que voudras.”
I recited the words carved above the entrance to the basement tunnel. During my convalescence, I'd learned that the Rabelais quote in sixteenth-century French also graced the archway and fireplaces at Medmenham Abbey.
“‘Do what you like,’” Midkiff translated, then laughed mirthlessly. “It's ironic. The Hell Fires used the quote to sanction their licentious indulgence, but Rabelais actually credits the words to Saint Augustine. “‘Love God and do what you like. For if with the spirit of wisdom a man loves God, then, always striving to fulfil the divine will, what he wishes should be the right thing.’”
“When did Prentice Dashwood die?”
“Was someone killed?” We had found only eight victims.
“There could be no replacement for Prentice. Following his death no one was elevated to the inner circle. The number dropped to six and remained there.”
“Why wasn't Dashwood on the fax you sent me?”
“I wrote down what I could recollect. The list was far from complete. I know almost nothing about those who joined after I left. As for Prentice, I just couldn't—” He glanced away. “It was so long ago.”
For a long moment, neither of us spoke.
“You really didn't know what was going on?”
“I put it together after Mary Francis Rafferty died in 1972. That's when I withdrew.”
“But said nothing.”
“No. I give no excuse.”
“Why did you tip Sheriff Crowe about Ralph Stover?”
“Stover joined the club after I dropped out. That's why he moved to Swain County. I've always known he was unstable.”
I remembered my most recent question.
“Was it Stover who tried to run me down in Cherokee?”
“I heard it was a black Volvo. Stover has a black Volvo. That incident convinced me that he really was dangerous.”
I gestured at the boxes.
“You're digging here, aren't you, Simon?”
“Without permission from Raleigh.”
“The site is crucial to the lithic assemblage sequence I'm constructing.”
“That's why you lied to me about working for the Department of Cultural Resources.”
I set down my cup and stood.
“I'm sorry things haven't turned out as you'd hoped.” I was sorry, but couldn't forgive what he had known and not reported.
“When the book is published people will recognize the value of my work.”
Outside, the day was still clear and cool, with no haze in the valleys or along the ridges.
Twelve-thirty. I had to hurry.