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Of course. I'd just stopped for a late lunch at Luella's Barbecue on the outskirts of the University of North Carolina at Asheville and should have known a sit-down meal was too good to be true. I rewrapped the barbecue sandwich, dumped it and the hush puppies back in the to-go bag, and headed for my car.
The BlackBerry beeped again. "Where r u?"
I waited till I was in my Honda CR-V before texting, "Luella's. Can u talk?" A few seconds later the cell number of my partner, Nakayla Robertson, flashed as an incoming call.
"How's the pig?" she whispered.
"Uneaten. What's up?"
"I'm not sure. She should be keeping office hours for students but she came out of the classroom and is headed toward the faculty parking lot. I'm walking about ten yards behind her."
"Where's your car?"
"The main visitor's deck. I don't think I can get to it in time to follow."
I started my engine. "I'm on the way. Stay with her to make sure she's not just getting something from her car."
"And if she leaves?"
"See which direction she turns. I should be in position to pick her up."
"Are we tag-teaming?"
I glanced at my watch. Three-thirty. "No. Go to the farm. Her daughter will be home from school soon. Janice is probably meeting her."
I crossed Merrimon Avenue and turned onto W.T. Weaver Boulevard. Traffic was light and I figured to reach the university in a few minutes. "How close is she to her car?"
"We still have a five minute walk."
"Good. I'll try for a side street close by so I can cover whatever direction she takes."
"Sam, keep your eyes on the road and your sandwich on the seat."
That was the problem with a partner. She knew me too well. But, Nakayla was the reason we had the case and I didn't want to screw up. We'd been tailing the professor all day, documenting her activities and searching for any indication that her claim of pain and suffering was a sham. Nakayla's former employer, The Investigative Alliance for Underwriters, a company devoted exclusively to insurance fraud, had subcontracted our detective agency. They hoped Sam Blackman and Nakayla Robertson would succeed where they failed. Janice Wainwright was suing an Asheville spinal surgeon, his clinic, and the hospital for an operation she said left her in more pain than the herniated disk it was intended to repair. She said standing to deliver a full lecture was now impossible and performing even the simplest chores at her small mountain farm left her in agony. Her life and livelihood had been irreparably altered.
Medical tests had been inconclusive, mediation efforts had failed, and the court date was scheduled for May 10th, less than three weeks away. Although North Carolina law only permitted plaintiffs to state their requested damages as "greater than ten thousand dollars," the mediation process revealed Janice Wainwright was seeking five million. The malpractice insurance company wanted to nail Janice with irrefutable proof that she was faking. In desperation, the Investigative Alliance hired us, not because we could do anything more than their own operatives, but because Nakayla and I had a certain star power. We'd solved two Asheville cases that caught the attention of the national media. We were the CYA factor for Investigative Alliance. "Cover Your Ass." If we failed, their excuse would be "but we bought the best."
Less than five minutes later, Nakayla called. "She's turning right on University Heights." Her voice rose with excitement. "That's not the direction to the farm."
I ran through my mental map of the campus. "If she stays on University Heights, she'll enter the rotary. I'll hang back and see which way she comes off the circle."
"You sure you don't want me to back you up?"
A two-car tail would be the normal way to go. Nakayla and I could alternate being ahead and avoid the target noticing the same vehicle in the rearview mirror for too long. But in this case, I felt the farm offered the best chance for catching Janice Wainwright in a lie.
"No. She's probably running some errands. She might pick up sacks of feed or fertilizer, and you need to be in position if she unloads them by herself. Go to the vista and be ready with the long lens."
The vista was a scenic pull-off on the county road overlooking the valley where the Wainwright property stretched along part of one slope. In the summer, tourists parked to photograph the panorama that featured the Appalachian Mountains encircling a mix of grazing land, Christmas tree fields, and apple orchards. White farmhouses dotted the landscape and a country church with an adjacent cemetery sat close to a bold stream bisecting the valley floor. The Wainwright farm was nearest to the overlook, and our surveillance camera could zoom in close enough that anyone by the house or barn could be identified.
"Okay. Keep me posted." Nakayla hung up.
When the rotary came in sight, I edged onto the shoulder about fifty yards away and clicked on my flashers. Within thirty seconds, Janice's green Ford Explorer entered the circle and took the first right. She was now on W.T. Weaver Boulevard and we were headed in the same direction. I immediately pulled onto the road and tried to narrow the distance. I was surprised at how fast she accelerated. Until now, the woman had been easy to tail. She kept her speed within the limit, gave ample warning with her turn signals, and rarely changed lanes.
A guy in a white Mercedes honked as I swung into the rotary without yielding. I pushed my Honda, trying to draw closer without looking like I was in a high-speed chase. Fortunately, the light caught Janice at the intersection with Broadway and let me catch up. She was turning right, away from downtown. I wondered if I'd made a mistake not using Nakayla. I thought about calling her back, but by now she'd be a couple miles away, traveling in the opposite direction.
We hit heavier traffic and Janice began switching lanes like an Olympic slalom skier as she passed everything on the road. I had trouble keeping up and nearly lost her when she suddenly swerved onto the exit for I-26 East. I braked hard, cut in front of a Fed-Ex truck, and barely made the edge of the ramp. As I merged onto the interstate, I saw the Ford Explorer already a half-mile ahead. My speedometer nudged eighty before the gap between us narrowed. She slowed through the construction by Biltmore Park Mall, but resumed her NASCAR pace as soon as the congestion cleared. I worried she was on some excursion to South Carolina. Hell, I-26 went all the way to Charleston.
As we crossed from Buncombe County into Henderson County, her right turn signal began flashing. We'd just passed an exit and the only signs were for a rest area ahead. We'd traveled less than fifteen miles from the university so I doubted she needed to use the facilities. Maybe she was a sensible driver and was stopping to text a message rather than steer with her knees while thumbing her phone's keypad.
She found a parking spot near the gray-sided, single-story building. I went beyond her at least fifteen spaces and pulled in where I had a clear view of the entrance. To my surprise she got out of her car and walked up the handicapped ramp. She carried a small backpack over one shoulder.
I called Nakayla.
"You almost here?" she asked.
"No. I'm at the I-26 rest stop near mile forty-one. She's gone inside."
"How should I know? Maybe she's got an overactive bladder."
"Doesn't sound like she's coming to the farm right away."
I checked the time. Ten minutes to four. "Has the daughter shown?"
"No. You think they're meeting somewhere?"
"Maybe. Janice is driving like she's late for a wedding." I knew Nakayla's next question would be whether she should abandon her stakeout. "Stay there until I get an idea what she's doing."
Nakayla sighed. "Obviously she's going farther down the interstate. No one drives to the next county to pee no matter how nice the décor."
"The hand dryers are top of the line."
"Nobody with any sense I should have said. The woman's not stupid. The verdict's still out on the guy tailing her."
A herd of Harley-Davidsons roared into the rest stop. At least ten spread across the spaces to my left. Most of the bikes carried two riders. This wasn't the weekend outing of doctors or lawyers; this was the real deal, tough scary dudes whose women looked like they could twist me into a pretzel.
"Are you at a chainsaw convention?" Nakayla asked.
"Bikers. Don't worry. Once I whip their leader's ass, the rest will run."
"I'll head over to the funeral home. Do you want a metal or wooden casket?"
I turned from the rumbling hogs and saw a woman with a backpack halfway down the ramp. I slapped the steering wheel. "Damn."
"What's wrong?" Nakayla asked.
"She changed clothes."
Janice Wainwright wore blue jeans, a brown flannel shirt, and hiking boots cut just above her ankles.
"She ditched her teaching wardrobe for L.L. Bean. Looks like she's going into the woods."
"That could be a good thing. You got your camera?"
I glanced at my Sony 700 reflex sitting on the seat beside my barbecue sandwich. "Yeah."
Nakayla figured out my problem. "You've got the Cadillac, right?"
She didn't mean a car. She meant my leg. Uncle Sam provided me with two prosthetic devices, my consolation prize for having my left leg blown off in Iraq. I called one the Cadillac because I wore it for normal activities like walking on level ground, standing in line, or sitting at a desk. It was made to absorb the minor shocks and protect the flesh below my knee that wasn't meant to bear the weight of my body. But running and jumping would bottom out that leg just like crossing open terrain would bottom out the suspension in a Cadillac. The car's cushy ride would become bone jarring as every ditch and gully overwhelmed shocks built for cruising the interstates. My second prosthesis had a stiffer design that could take the pounding of more strenuous action. It wouldn't be as comfortable crossing a Persian carpet, but it could get me up a mountainside without turning my stump to hamburger. That was my Land Rover and right now it lay on the floor of my bedroom closet.
"Yeah," I admitted. "I should have tossed the Land Rover in the backseat. What good's a detective with a leg up on the competition if he doesn't use it?"
Janice's Explorer passed behind me. I was confident she wouldn't notice a Honda amid a swarm of bikers. I backed up, careful to avoid the chrome chopper next to my front fender and the need for a decision between a metal or wooden casket.
"She's on the move again," I told Nakayla. "You come on. We want to photograph her on difficult terrain and I might not be able to keep up."
"Okay. I'm twenty minutes away. But, she could be going to look at livestock in some barnyard."
"Then stay where you are."
She laughed and hissed make-believe static in my ear. "Sorry. Bad connection. Call again when you leave I-26."
Janice held a steady seventy-five for the next twelve miles, and I began to fear she might be going to Charleston after all. I checked my fuel gauge. The needle had dipped below half a tank. When I looked up, the Explorer's turn signal was blinking. A green sign indicated the Upward Road exit. Two smaller brown signs bordered it top and bottom. The long one above read Carl Sandburg Home; the other, Flat Rock Playhouse. Janice barely slowed at the top of the ramp before turning right on a red light and heading in the direction of the two sites. She zipped through a second stoplight just as it changed from yellow to red and left me trapped on the wrong side of the intersection.
A rusty pickup on wobbly retreads turned in from the side road, shifted gears, and belched a cloud of blue smoke from a dangling tailpipe. Janice couldn't have hired a better roadblock to keep me from catching her.
I called Nakayla. "She exited on Upward Road south of Hendersonville, but I'm stuck behind a rattletrap truck that will fall apart if it tops thirty miles an hour."
"Where did you lose her?" Nakayla asked.
"Second light off the interstate."
"Which way did she go?"
"Straight ahead, but the road's a curvy two-lane and the oncoming traffic's so heavy I can't pass."
"You're headed to Flat Rock?"
"I guess so."
Nakayla was quiet for a minute. I looked down each side road I passed but no Explorer. The smell of the old pickup's burning oil seeped through the vents and I dropped back even farther. "You still there?"
"Goats?" It wasn't a word high on my list of her possible responses.
"They have at least one goat on the farm. We saw the girl taking care of it this morning. Almost like a pet."
"So? The relevance of a goat escapes my deductive powers."
"I think the goat's pregnant, but that probably escaped your deductive powers as well."
"Is this a woman thing? If so, I plead gender handicap."
"It's a knowledge thing which means you're really handicapped. Carl Sandburg's wife raised goats."
I still didn't see the connection. "Don't a lot of people raise goats?"
"Mrs. Sandburg was a champion breeder. The national park service assigned a ranger who's a specialist with goats to manage the remnant of her herd."
Without the least hint of a signal, the pickup suddenly turned onto a dirt road. I stared ahead. Janice Wainwright had disappeared.
"Then I'll go to the Sandburg home because I deduce Janice is asking the ranger questions about delivering the baby."
Nakayla laughed in my ear. "They're called kids."
"I knew that. I'm not as dumb as I look."
"Sam, there's no way you could be."
I drove a few miles farther until the road dead-ended in a T intersection. Signs indicated both the Carl Sandburg Home and The Flat Rock Playhouse were to the left. I found myself driving beneath a canopy of giant pines spaced evenly on both sides of the narrow road. They'd either been specifically planted decades ago or the road graders had preserved them as a natural boundary.
A sign read, "Entering Historic Flat Rock, Established 1807." As far as I could see, there was no downtown. The houses seemed to be tucked away behind the trees, as hidden as the Past. I found the Flat Rock Playhouse on the right side of another three-way intersection. A large white house looked like a hybrid of Victorian and antebellum design. More buildings spread behind it. One was the playhouse proper and others might have been scene shops or housing for the cast. The theatrical complex sat on a giant flat rock, and I wondered if it was where the name of the village originated.
Another Sandburg marker at the intersection directed me to turn right onto Little River Road. In less than a tenth of a mile, an official National Park Service sign proclaimed I'd arrived at Carl's home. I cruised through the parking lot looking for Janice's Explorer. The cars were only a single row deep on either side and her vehicle wasn't one of them. So much for Nakayla's goat theory.
I exited, crossed the road, and entered the lot for the playhouse. The Explorer sat alone at the far end. Why would Janice change clothes to attend a play? I decided to keep my car a safe distance until I knew what she was doing. I returned to the Sandburg site and noticed it closed at five. I could check on Janice and still have plenty of time to move the Honda. I slipped the camera around my neck and strolled across the road to the playhouse.
The box office was at the rear of the white house. No one stood at the ticket windows. I walked to the single-story playhouse about thirty yards to the left and found the doors locked. I went around the building and saw a shirtless man in paint-splotched jeans rolling white paint on a flat leaned against a sawhorse. Several more flats lay drying in the afternoon sun. A second man stood just out of splatter range. He wore pressed khaki slacks, a pink shirt with the sleeves rolled above the wrists, sock-less loafers, and a straw Fedora. The dapper dresser appeared to be supervising.
Both men jumped. The painter turned quickly, holding the soggy roller like a broad sword. "Hey, man. You startled us." He looked to be in his early twenties and wore a blue bandana around his head to keep the sweat from his eyes and the paint out of his jet- black hair.
The other man was probably in his late thirties. "We're dark today."
"I know. But I'm supposed to meet a friend here. She's about five-six. In her early forties."
"Nobody's been by. That right, Rick?"
The younger man half-turned away, anxious to get back to work. "Nope. You sure she said the playhouse?"
"Her car's in the parking lot. A green Explorer."
The older man frowned. "That doesn't mean anything. She could be at the Sandburg farm. Their parking lot's too small and we have trouble with the overflow taking our spaces. Not a problem today but a real mess when we've got a matinee."
"Thanks. I bet that's where she is."
Excerpted from The Sandburg Connection by Mark de Castrique Copyright © 2011 by Mark de Castrique. Excerpted by permission of Poisoned Pen Press. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Posted May 2, 2012
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