“So, where are we going?” I asked the question as Nakayla tossed her backpack in the rear of my Honda CR-V and then climbed into the front passenger’s seat.
“I’ll know in a few minutes.” She pulled her cellphone out of a belt pouch and held it in front of her like a divining rod.
I shook my head with disbelief. “We don’t go through such elaborate secrecy on a stakeout. You’d think we were hunting international spies, not mushrooms.”
Nakayla laughed. “Mushrooming is serious business.” Her phone beeped. “They’re early.”
I started the engine and backed down the driveway of Nakayla’s bungalow in West Asheville. “You’re telling me. Seven o’clock on a Saturday morning is way too early.”
“You wanted a hobby, Sam.” She held the phone closer to her face and read the email. “Great choice. And I won’t have to hear you argue with the GPS lady.”
“We don’t argue. The woman just can’t make up her mind. Always recalculating. Now, back to my original question. Where are we going?”
“The Kingdom of the Happy Land.”
I gave her a sideways glance. “You’re kidding. What the hell’s that?”
“The only place in North Carolina ruled by a king.” “What about King George?”
“Touché. I mean after the revolution. It was a commune formed by ex-slaves. I didn’t know anything about it until several years ago when I investigated a fraudulent insurance claim against the owners of a neighboring summer camp. We got to be friends and they told me about the Kingdom. I’ve always wanted to see it.”
“And it’s still functioning?”
“No. I think it disbanded around the late eighteen-hundreds.” She looked at her phone again. “But our club president says the land is supposed to have mushrooms galore, and it’s private property. So, we’ll get a history lesson, some exercise, and I’ll fix whatever we find for dinner tonight. Much easier than cleaning a deer.”
“Good point. And I can probably leave my gun in the car.”
Nakayla arched her eyebrows. “You brought your pistol to a mushroom club field trip?”
“Hey, you’re the one who said there might be claim jumpers.” “No. I said if we announce the location in advance, other people figure we know what we’re talking about and immediately search the site.”
“It’s hard to believe.”
“That people would immediately search the site?” “That you know what you’re talking about.”
She gave me a jab in the ribs. “I’m the one standing between you and a poisonous toadstool. What do you say about that?”
Nakayla dropped the phone back in the pouch. “Smart man.” She reclined the seat a few degrees. “The site’s a couple miles below Flat Rock. We should be there in about forty minutes.” The previous year we’d solved a mystery involving Carl Sandburg’s farm in Flat Rock so the route was familiar. Since then, our detective agency had investigated only a handful of cases, mostly missing persons who turned out to be either runaway teens or husbands with midlife crises who left to find themselves. Our scarcity of business wasn’t a financial concern. Nakayla and I each had offshore accounts funded by acquisitions better left off the books. The Blackman and Robertson Detective Agency gave us a method for converting some of that money into reportable income. Neither of us had a desire for an extravagant lifestyle, but we did enjoy an active one. The dearth of cases had prompted my comment to Nakayla that I needed a challenge, even if it was only a hobby.
And so, on a Saturday morning in May, I found myself hot on the trail of wild mushrooms, not exactly the challenge I had in mind.
Nakayla had been a member of the Blue Ridge Mushroom Club since her first job out of college. She’d gone inactive when we’d formed the detective agency and our business and personal lives intertwined. As a native of western North Carolina, she’d shown me her favorite mountain haunts and introduced me to many of her friends. I’d grown up in central North Carolina, the section known as the piedmont, and only came to the Appa- lachians for short vacations as a child when the summer heat drove my family into the hills.
A rocket grenade in Iraq had taken my left leg, ended my military career as a CID Chief Warrant Officer, and transported me to the V.A. hospital in Asheville for rehabilitation. The murder of Nakayla’s sister had brought us together and I found in her a kindred spirit, a partner who made me whole in a way the doctors and prosthetic devices couldn’t. Although we teased and kidded, there was no doubt she and I would stand in the line of fire for each other. I knew because it had happened more than once.
“Aside from the gun, did you bring what I asked?”
I ran down my mental checklist before speaking. “Compass, bug spray, water, knife, trowel, wax paper, a basket, a cooler with ice, and Chardonnay.”
“Yes. I always have wine with mushrooms.”
“Good. If you eat the wrong species, the alcohol will accelerate the toxins. Drink all you want. I paid the premium on your life insurance yesterday.”
I didn’t have a comeback. As far as mushrooms went, I was a babe in the woods and Nakayla ruled the day.
Soon after we passed through the tiny town of Tuxedo, Nakayla instructed me to turn onto a one-lane dirt road that was not much more than a logging trail. The CR-V negotiated the steady climb for what seemed like a mile until we came to an open pasture on a rounded hilltop. Seven vehicles were parked in a loosely formed arc. I pulled to a stop at one end and we got out. A small group of enthusiasts gathered at the pasture’s edge.
Some checked their gear; others gathered around a map spread across the hood of a Jeep.
Everyone waved at Nakayla. She was like the prodigal daughter returning from a distant land. There must have been eight or ten of them, a variety of ages and roughly balanced by gender. All were white, not that it mattered to Nakayla. Being the only African-American in the club wouldn’t have bothered her in the least.
They eyed me with curiosity. Several glanced at my legs, and I knew they’d been forewarned I was an amputee. I wore the prosthesis I called my “Land Rover.” It was stiffer and better suited for hiking. My other device was designed for regular wear and I dubbed it the “Cadillac” for its soft, cushy feel.
A tall man with curly gray hair stepped forward and offered his hand. “Welcome, Sam. I’m Donnie Nettles and the president of this dubious organization.”
The others formed a semicircle behind him and I wondered if some initiation was about to occur.
Nettles cleared his throat. “As a paid member of the Blue Ridge Mushroom Club, you are entitled to all rights and privileges.”
“Paid member?” I whispered.
“Happy birthday six months early,” Nakayla said.
Nettles nodded. “And as soon as we get some rights and privileges, we’ll tell you what they are.”
The others laughed and I relaxed. The group had a sense of humor.
“But we do have a coveted item that’s awarded to each member.” He reached in the chest pocket of his khaki shirt and withdrew what looked like a box for a ring. He flipped open the lid, and on a velvet cushion rested a silver police whistle. “You’ll notice the letters BRMC for Blue Ridge Mushroom Club have been carefully engraved along the mouthpiece. The chain and pocket clip are designed to loop through a button hole so the whistle will always be within reach.”
He stepped forward and affixed the chain to my shirt pocket. “We only have the one box so it stays with me. Wear the whistle proudly. We all do, and it comes in handy in case you ever get lost in the woods. That’s happened to more than one of us. Or you can use it if you come across a treasure trove of morels and want to share them with other club members. That’s never happened.”
The group laughed and broke up. The initiation was over. “Come with me,” Nettles said. “As the newcomer, we’ll give you first choice on the happy hunting grounds of the Kingdom of the Happy Land.”
He turned back to the hood of the Jeep and I noticed the four corners of the topographical map were weighed down with small, flat stones. A hand-drawn circle inscribed most of the terrain and lines cut the encompassed area into wedges like pieces of a pie. The slices grew wider as the distance increased from the center that marked the pasture.
“I’ve divided the site into ten areas. Ed Bell, the property owner, assures me each should yield equal opportunity. This time of year we’ll most likely find Laetiporus Sulphureus and Pleurotus. There should be plenty of fallen logs to support both species.”
“Laetiporus Sulphureus.” I confidently repeated the name like I ate it for breakfast every morning.
“It’s Sam’s favorite,” Nakayla said. “They share the same nickname.”
Nettles laughed and I knew I was the butt of some joke. “Sulfur Shelf’s an odd nickname,” he said.
Nakayla shook her head. “Try again.”
“Play nice,” I said. “Don’t make me blow my new whistle.”
Whatever it was, Donnie Nettles didn’t want to say it. “Chicken of the Woods,” Nakayla said gleefully. “But don’t worry, Sam. That’s too many words to engrave on your whistle.”
I pointed to the map. “We’ll see who’s chicken. Give us the area that has the most bears.”
“I don’t know about the bears, but this southern section is the most interesting. Ed Bell says it’s the site of the original palace, as he calls it.” Nettles hesitated, and then added, “The terrain is pretty manageable. I hiked it as a kid.”
Nakayla didn’t say anything, and I knew she was letting me make the call. Rightly or wrongly, I took Nettles’ statement as a personal message that he didn’t know if a man with one leg could handle some of the other areas. My pride prompted me to ask for the toughest terrain, but I also knew Nakayla was interested in seeing the remains of this nineteenth-century commune.
“Sounds good,” I said.
He nodded. “Then let’s get the other sections assigned and start. We’ll need to meet back here in two hours.” He turned to Nakayla. “I promised Ed Bell I’d make sure everyone was accounted for.”
“We’ll wait with you,” Nakayla said. “Assuming we’re not the ones who are lost.”
“Not two detectives,” Nettles said.
“Right,” I said. “That’s us. We know exactly where we are at all times. Even when we haven’t got a clue.”
“Which is most of the time,” Nakayla added. “We’ll just follow a stream, right, Sam?”
“Good advice,” Nettles said. “Water will lead you to people.” I laughed. “Nakayla’s ribbing me because I once told her I followed a river during night maneuvers. It was survival training over terrain similar to this. I was alone, hacking through underbrush about thirty yards from the river when suddenly a car drove by on top of the water. A car or a pickup. All I saw were headlights.”
“The river was frozen?” Nettles asked.
“The river was a paved road. The reflected moonlight on the patches of asphalt I saw through the brush had looked like water. I’d spent thirty minutes being scratched and tripped when I could have been walking along the shoulder of a road.”
“We don’t mention that story in our brochure,” Nakayla said. Nettles gave me a sympathetic smile. “Hey, I got lost more than once in Vietnam. That was a good way to wind up dead. Here, you’re a little safer. Water or a road, either one will bring you to civilization, or in this case, South Carolina, which isn’t necessarily the same thing.”
“I’ll make sure he has a compass,” Nakayla said. “And his whistle.”
Nettles called the group together. The remaining sections of the map were assigned and we agreed to return to base at ten. I thought the day was shaping up nicely. Take a leisurely hike in the woods, find a couple of mushrooms, finish early enough to grab lunch in nearby Hendersonville, and then drive back to Asheville where Nakayla could prepare our harvest to be eaten atop a cut of grass-fed beef I’d cook on the grill. Maybe a new hobby revolving around food wasn’t such a bad idea.
Nakayla and I hiked for about ten minutes before she saw an old log lying diagonally across the slope.
“Here we go. This is what we’re looking for.” She pointed to orange fungi clinging to the rotten wood like misshapen plates. “Chicken of the Woods.”
“The same thing as Sulfur Shelf?”
“Yes. See how it grows in layers? Like shelves on a wall. Get your trowel and basket. We’ll wrap the fruit body in wax paper and then you can take it with you.”
“What do you mean? Aren’t we going together?”
Nakayla bent over the log and started cutting the mushrooms free. “No. If we split up, we’ll cover twice the territory. You’ve got your compass. Remember your bearings and we’ll meet back here no later than quarter to ten. I’m giving you these to use as a reference.” She gently laid one of the orange mushrooms in a sheet of wax paper, loosely folded it closed, and then dropped the future menu item into my basket. “Most will be this orange color, although older ones might have gone more salmon. If you’re lucky, you’ll find them on hardwoods. The ones growing on dead pines are a little strong for my taste.”
“Okay. Which way do you want me to go?”
She pointed with her trowel. “Head up at a forty-five-degree angle to the right and I’ll do the same to the left. Watch your compass and remember landmarks. Daniel Boone you’re not.” I lifted the basket. “No. I feel more like Little Red Riding Hood.”
I set off across the slope, my tools in my backpack, basket in my right hand, and shiny new whistle bouncing against my chest. The morning sunlight streamed through the canopy in slanted rays. Squirrels chattered, clearly sizing me up as a harmless vagabond. The air warmed and the scent of pine floated on a gentle breeze.
After about ten minutes, I intersected a small creek. I pulled some pebbles from the bed and stacked them as a marker where I should turn downhill on my return. Then I hiked along the stream’s edge, thinking the moisture evaporating off the running water might be conducive to mushroom growth. I kept my eyes downward, looking for fallen logs or the base of a dead tree.
My methods weren’t without results, but none of the fungi resembled the mushrooms in my basket. A few looked like the cute ones dancing around in Walt Disney’s Fantasia, but I didn’t know if they were edible. I wasn’t taking any chances. Maybe I was Chicken of the Woods after all.
Then, across the stream and on a slight rise, a shaft of sunlight illuminated a patch of orange, its brilliance sharp against the muted greens and browns of the forest. An end of a large log nearly three feet in diameter was covered in mushrooms identical to the ones Nakayla had picked. If I were in a movie, the soundtrack would have swelled with an angelic chorus.
Without bothering to seek a shallower crossing, I splashed through the creek, never taking my eyes from the treasure trove. Part of me thought how ridiculous I was to be racing to a rotten log. The mushrooms weren’t going anywhere. But the competitive side of me already envisioned the envious stares of the club members when I showed up in the pasture with my overflowing basket. And then there was Nakayla. As student, I wanted to best my teacher, and the sooner I harvested these, the sooner I could press on in search of more.
But, I forgot my world was different since Iraq. I’d grown so comfortable with my prosthesis that I bounded up the hill as if on my own two legs. Now only one had feeling all the way to the soles of my feet. So, I didn’t sense the toe of my left boot catch under a surface root. I stumbled like a running back tripped by a defender’s shoestring tackle. My momentum pitched me forward, and, instinctively, I dropped the basket and thrust out my arms to break my fall. My hands mauled the bounteous layers of orange and then broke through the log until my arms plunged into its hollow interior up to my shoulders.
For a second, I lay stunned amid the mushroom carnage. My first thought was, “Did anybody see me?” Chicken of the Woods would be a label of honor compared to the new nicknames my tumble could inspire.
I pushed down, trying to get some leverage to lift myself up. Both hands pushed against something hard, like a stick buried within the log. I rose enough to be able to turn on my left side and wrench my right arm free. Then I used that arm as a brace against a more solid section of the log and pulled the left free. I rolled over, my back to the log, and looked at the front of my chest. The remains of Sulfur Shelf were smeared across my shirt, its spongy mass now the consistency of day-old road kill. In a mushroom handbook, I’d be the chapter entitled “What to Eat and How to Wear It.”
I caught my breath a moment and then turned around to see if anything was worth saving. My attack on the log left a gaping hole. The fallen tree had withstood heat, cold, rain, snow, insects, and even mushrooms, but it was no match for Sam Blackman. I started to get up when I noticed my whistle had torn free from my buttonhole. I checked the ground at the base of the log. Nothing. The whistle had probably been stripped off when I crashed through the outer shell of wood.
I approached the hole from an angle so as not to block the narrow shaft of sunlight. Sure enough, the silver whistle gleamed in the dark hollow of the log where it had come to rest. Come to rest in the chest cavity of a human skeleton.
In the Kingdom of the Happy Land, someone had not lived happily ever after.