The night sky around Asheville can play tricks on the eye. Points of light might be stars, or they might be the sparkling illuminated windows of hundreds of houses dotting the ridge tops around the city.
Making the distinction between the two isn’t so difficult, except for those evenings when valley mist hovers like a sheer veil between earth and heaven. Or when an extra glass of wine creates a misty veil in the brain, blurring not only the horizon but also objects closer at hand.
I focused on the sidewalk in front of me, taking each step with painstaking determination. Thunder sounded in the distance, signaling that the clear night sky would soon be changing. As the mountaineers say, “If you don’t like the weather, wait fifteen minutes.”
Few people shared my walk, an activity I’d undertaken to clear my head. That had been a mistake. Walking on an artificial leg was difficult enough without carrying the effects of three-quarters of a bottle of pinot noir.
My slight inebriation wasn’t my fault. My business partner and girlfriend, Nakayla Robertson, hadn’t held up her end of the festivities. We’d agreed to split everything fifty-fifty, but she claimed her single glass from the bottle had been enough. I, however, am not one to leave a task undone, polishing off both of our dinners and the wine.
And so I found myself struggling along Patton Avenue, headed toward our office on Pack Square with two goals in mind: first, not to stumble and look like a drunken derelict; and second, to pick up the lockbox in our office that we were holding for a client. Not just any client. Our first and only client and the reason for tonight’s celebration.
I’m Sam Blackman, former Chief Warrant Officer, U.S. Army, and present and forever amputee. I’d lost a leg in Iraq, but found a life in the western North Carolina mountains. Now I’d planted both feet, although one was artificial, in my adopted community, and as a taxpaying business owner, I was on the way to becoming a model citizen.
“Good evening, Sam. How are you doing tonight?”
I looked diagonally across the intersection of Patton and Biltmore Avenue where a uniformed officer emerged from the shadows.
He gave a slight wave, and though I didn’t recognize him, I wasn’t surprised that he knew my name. I was a familiar face around the Asheville Police Department—as a colleague, not as an inmate. I straightened and concentrated on maintaining flawless balance as I crossed to the corner opposite him.
“Can’t complain. Wouldn’t do any good if I did.”
He laughed. “I hear you. Well, take it easy.” He turned away, heading down the block to the department.
Take it easy. Lugging the lockbox from the office to the park- ing deck would be anything but easy. I regretted telling Nakayla not to come with me. She’d parked her car near Tupelo Honey Café where we’d eaten, and when I’d declined a ride, she should have headed home. But Nakayla knew me too well, and there was a good chance she’d be waiting at the office. I’d be grateful to see her, even if it meant hearing her say “I told you so.”
I slid my shiny new key into the dead bolt of the building’s main entrance and was surprised to find it unlocked. Nakayla probably had come back to help me.
The security guard locked up every weeknight at seven and began rounds, which meant the tenants had to meet clients at the door for after-hours appointments. I expected that would happen frequently to Nakayla and me. Private investigators don’t work bankers’ hours, and clients often prefer to come under the cover of darkness.
I left the door as I’d found it, figuring we’d lock up on our way out. The hardwood floor creaked as I stepped along the hall to the elevator. The old structure had character, something you don’t find in the cubicle and drop-ceiling world of office parks and glass skyscrapers.
I pushed the up button and the elevator opened. Nakayla was teasing me. She’d sent it back down, and I was surprised she wasn’t inside poised to punch three.
Nearing our office, I saw the frosted glass of our door’s window. No light shown through it. A dark crack marked the gap where the door stood ajar. I gently pushed it open in case Nakayla crouched behind, ready to leap out and scare me.
“Honey, I’m home!” I shouted. Silence.
“Nakayla?” I stepped into the darkness. My prosthetic left foot caught on something soft and I tumbled forward. Flinging my arms out to break my fall, I collided with an end table and twisted onto my back. My head cracked against the floor, but instead of dazing me, the jolt drove the wine-induced haze out of my brain. I scrambled around, fear numbing my pain, and reached out for the obstacle that had tripped me.
My fingers grabbed locks of hair. In the dim glow, I could barely make out the body of a woman.
A little more than twenty-four hours earlier, I’d been sipping champagne and christening the new business.
“To Blackman and Robertson.” Nathan Armitage had raised his glass and smiled. “Or is it Robertson and Blackman?”
I shook my head. “Don’t go there. I told her ladies first but she wouldn’t listen.” I tilted my glass of bubbly to Nakayla Robertson sitting on the sofa. She’d slipped off her shoes and tucked her slender feet against the brown leather cushion. A tag with the red word SALE dangled from the armrest under her elbow.
“Here’s to a prosperous partnership of investigations,” I said. “And to not being investigated ourselves.”
“I’ll drink to that.” Nakayla took a sip and then tipped her glass toward Nathan. “So, have you got any hot referrals for us?”
The older man sat in one of two matching armchairs with his back to the wide window. He was in his mid-forties, about twelve or thirteen years older than me. Silver had begun to creep up the temples of his jet-black hair.
Behind him, Pack Square lay three stories below. Our new offices looked out over the core of Asheville’s past and the hub of its present. The stone monolith commemorating Civil War governor Zebulon Vance dominated the historic square and the wall of Blue Ridge Mountains provided the city’s backdrop beneath the pink clouds of an early September evening. Although the rent was more than our potential income could justify, the location in the renovated Adler Court Offices offered proximity to the Asheville Police Department and Buncombe County Courthouse, two necessities for any respectable private eye.
“Sorry,” Nathan said with exaggerated smugness. “Armitage Security Services only works with licensed investigators.”
“You think we invited you up here for champagne because Sam and I bought some furniture?” Nakayla turned to me. “No wonder the man’s company doesn’t do detective work.”
“You got them?” Nathan’s voice rose with excitement. “Special delivery from Raleigh this morning.” I held up two manila envelopes. “Both of us. They gave Nakayla full credit for her three years of insurance fraud investigative work.”
“Terrific,” Nathan said. “Chief Buchanan must have helped fast-track you through.”
The Asheville Police Chief had written a strong recommendation to the Private Protective Services Board of North Carolina. Nathan, Nakayla, and I had solved the murder of one of Buchanan’s detectives, and he and his entire force had been profuse in expressing their gratitude. Nathan Armitage had taken a pistol shot to the chest in the final confrontation and had been released from the hospital less than a month ago. This visit to our new office was one of his first ventures out on his own.
“And a little bird told me you dropped a letter to the governor,” I said.
“About time I got something for my campaign contributions.
What about counter-intelligence?” “That license too. For me.”
“Everybody knows I’ll be the intelligence behind our business,” Nakayla said, “so Sam would have to be counter-intelligence.”
We took a collective sip of champagne.
Counter-intelligence meant I could sweep for bugs and other surveillance devices. Within the confines of the law, I could now also utilize them. As a former Chief Warrant Officer in the Criminal Investigation Detachment of the U.S. military, I satisfied the Board’s requirement for three years of experience in investigative work three times over, but the three years of counterintelligence needed for that license wasn’t as clearly documented. Evidently support from the Asheville law enforcement community had trumped any objections.
Nathan set his half-empty glass on the new oak coffee table. “That’s enough alcohol. Doc Warner still has me on a restrictive diet.” He looked around the room. “So, how are you going to set things up? Will you have a receptionist?”
“No,” Nakayla said. “We’ve hired an answering service. Phones are installed tomorrow. We don’t want anyone in the business but us.”
Nathan nodded. He understood. This wasn’t meant to be a moneymaking operation. Last month I’d received nearly three million dollars for my parents’ wrongful death settlement, and I could live comfortably on the interest. The case that put Nathan in the hospital had also left Nakayla with a considerable fortune, one that hadn’t been reported to the authorities but was rightfully hers. Part of my fortune would be used to launder hers. Offshore accounts and trades in untraceable gold and gems would be the means for converting her assets into legitimate holdings. The Blackman and Robertson Detective Agency provided an explanation for how a disabled Iraqi vet and an African-American woman of modest means managed to support themselves.
I stretched out my prosthetic leg to ease the tingle in my stump. Sitting too long in one position often caused the sensation. “We’ll use this central room as a combination reception and conference area. Nakayla will have the office on the right and I’ll be on the left.”
Nathan looked at the dark wood paneling, the overstuffed chairs and sofa, heavy end tables, and the Oriental rug centered on the hardwood floor. “Looks more like a sleepy British gentlemen’s club than the image of a high-tech, hard-driving investigative team.”
“Yes,” Nakayla said. “Because we have no intention of being what we seem. To be underestimated is to hold the advantage.”
Nathan reached for his glass. “To hell with Doc Warner. That philosophy deserves a drink.” He took a deep swallow and then grinned. “You might make this detective agency a success in spite of yourselves.”
A knock sounded from the door behind me. “Come in,” I said.
A uniformed security guard entered. She appeared to be a few years younger than me—late twenties, closer to Nakayla’s age. Her curly black hair was clipped short in military fashion and her sharp features exaggerated the scowl on her face. “Are you authorized to be here?” she snapped.
Her eyes moved from me to Nakayla to Nathan. Then they widened as her mouth dropped open. “Mr. Armitage,” she sputtered.
I noticed the patch on her chest pocket, a Roman warrior holding a shield over a woman and child and the banner above them reading Armitage. The logo of Nathan’s company. He’d once told me he’d been tempted to use the acronym of Armitage Security Services instead, but his wife had objected.
“That’s all right,” Nathan told the young guard. “Forgive me. You are?”
“Amanda Whitfield, sir. My duty sheet said the tenants weren’t moving in until later this week. And since it’s after hours –”
“You did the right thing,” Nathan assured her.
I twisted in the chair and gripped the back to help me to my feet. “I’m Sam Blackman. This is my partner, Nakayla Robertson.” I offered my hand and she shook it.
“A pleasure to meet you. I’ve read all about you.” She looked to Nakayla. “Both of you.”
“Reporters like to exaggerate,” I said.
Nathan cleared his throat. “Except for the part about them saving my life. Keep a good watch over their office, Amanda.”
She straightened at the order. “I will, sir.” “What time are you off?” I asked. “Midnight, sir.”
I smiled. “Too bad. I was going to offer you some champagne, Amanda, but we’d better make it another time. And I’d appreciate if you wouldn’t report Nathan’s imbibing to his doctor.”
She blushed, not sure if I was joking.
“Please tell your relief we’ve moved in,” I said. “We got our fur- niture on sale but had to remove it from the showroom today. The building manager agreed to let us in a couple of days early.”
“Certainly.” Amanda glanced at Nathan. “I’ll enter it in the logbook so all the shifts will know.”
Her boss nodded his approval.
“Thank you,” I said. “A pleasure to meet you.”
She backed out into the hall, beaming at all of us, and closed the door.
“Glad to see you’ve got more women in uniform,” Nakayla said.
Nathan shrugged. “You don’t have to convince me. Women develop a better rapport with the clients. Good for business.”
He drummed his fingers against the side of his glass. “But I wish I’d known her name.”
“You’ve got more than two hundred employees,” I said. “No excuse. Good business also means good rapport with your workers. As soon as she said Amanda, I remembered her story. I waived a policy when we hired her.”
“What policy?” Nakayla asked.
“When someone comes onboard full time, they have to be available to work any shift—some are eight hours, some ten, some twelve. Amanda couldn’t work during the day.”
I eased back into my chair. “Why not?”
“She has a quadriplegic husband. Her mother stays with him in the evening or overnight. The mother has a job during the day, and it would cost Amanda more for in-home medical care than what we can pay her. They’ve had a tough time.”
“How’d it happen?” Nakayla asked.
“On their honeymoon of all things. He slipped on the diving board at the resort and cracked his neck on the edge. Hawaii I think.” Nathan sighed. “A young couple flies away to paradise with their whole future ahead of them and then they come back with that future and their dreams shattered.”
Suddenly the champagne didn’t taste so good. I looked down at my left leg. Beneath the fabric of my pants, a cold mechanical device replaced the living bone and flesh blown away in Iraq. But I could walk. And I could use my arms. I had nothing to complain about.
“You were good to hire her,” I said.
“What else could I do? Her husband, Matt, had worked for me for five years. I’d seen her photograph but never met her until today, because I agreed to the waiver while I was in the hospital.”
“So she’s new,” I said.
“Yes. And since we only provide security here from 4:00 pm to 8:00 am, she can keep this as a consistent assignment. About the most excitement she’ll see is helping someone who’s locked out of his office.”
“That would be Sam,” Nakayla said.
“I don’t doubt it.” Nathan set his glass down again, empty this time. “I need to get home before Helen calls out the state troopers.” He stood and Nakayla and I rose. “And I suppose you have things to do.”
Nakayla slipped into her shoes. “Right. I need to put the file in order. The empty one we’re reserving for our first case.”
“Don’t worry,” Nathan said. “Asheville has more than its share of secrets.” He winked. “And maybe I will have a referral or two.” He kissed Nakayla on the cheek and patted me on the shoulder. “Take care of each other.”
As the echo of his footsteps faded down the hall, I looked around the office. We’d had the deliverymen set the furniture in the appropriate rooms, but nothing had been properly placed. Nakayla and I could start positioning desks and chairs, or—
She caught me eyeing the Coleman cooler and the magnum of champagne half buried in crushed ice. “You know what I think?”
“I’d be crazy to guess.”
“And that’s what I’m thinking. We must be crazy.” She took my hand and led me to the window.
In the deepening dusk, Pack Square had quieted to a few tourists gathered around the base of the Vance Memorial where a duo playing banjo and fiddle tried to eke out an extra dollar in their open instrument cases. I couldn’t determine whether the longhaired street musicians were male or female, but the faint strains of “Cripple Creek” told even my untrained ear that they were a long way from the masters of mountain music like Doc Watson or the Kruger Brothers.
“Blackman and Robertson,” Nakayla whispered. “Is Asheville ready for us?”
“Blackman and Robertson. Has a nice ring to it.” “So does Laurel and Hardy.”
I reached across her waist, took her other hand, and turned her to me. “Having second thoughts?”
Her dark brown eyes searched my face. “Are you?” “No. I know we’re crazy.”
She kissed me on the lips, confirming our shared diagnosis. “Then maybe we’d better get back to the asylum.”
I gestured toward the cooler. “But we have the champagne.” “Bring it. If I drink another glass here, Amanda Whitfield’s next round on patrol will really give her something to enter into her logbook.”
# # #
The asylum was what we called my apartment building. It had opened in 1891 as a grand hotel, the Kenilworth Inn, during the time when George W. Vanderbilt was creating his mammoth Biltmore Estate and the adjoining Biltmore Village. Destroyed by fire in the early 1900s, the resort had been rebuilt and later converted into an army hospital for veterans of the First World War. Various incarnations included a sanitarium and a mental institution. Hence, the asylum.
Several years ago, a conscientious developer had saved the Kenilworth from demolition. The grounds and architecture still carried the impressive grandeur of Asheville’s gilded age, and pulling up to the stone porte-cochère at the end of the expansive lawn made me feel like I was arriving at my mansion rather than my relatively inexpensive one-bedroom apartment.
The pleasant evening had lured residents out on the front lawn. Some walked dogs, and a younger group of middle-schoolers tossed a Frisbee. Everyone enjoyed the cool temperature and invigorating mountain air. Overhead, the clouds had cleared and stars began popping out as the sky turned from purple to black. I was tempted to suggest we sit in the Adirondack chairs clustered on the grass and swap the bottle of champagne back and forth like two alley winos who’d won the lottery.
But, as we walked from our cars, the tinge of pain in my stump told me I needed to remove my prosthesis. The day had been long, and the night promised to be much more intriguing than the ordeal of shopping for office furniture. I wanted to be comfortable, and Nakayla was one of the few people with whom I could be my whole self regardless of whether I had one leg or two.
Nakayla Robertson and I had been brought together by the murder of her sister, Tikima. In the course of solving that crime, we’d barely escaped with our lives. Now I couldn’t imagine life without her—either as my new business partner or my bedmate. She wanted to proceed more cautiously, keeping her own house in West Asheville and limiting our lovemaking to the occasional overnight.
I tried not to think that her hesitancy to begin a more intimate living arrangement was because she had doubts about an interracial relationship or because she feared involvement with a wounded vet still coming to grips with his mutilated body. Nakayla sensed my insecurity, and more than once she’d assured me she simply needed some time to adjust to the recent upheavals in her world: the loss of her sister, the discovery of a family fortune, and the limitless possibilities of her future. She wanted to choose from those possibilities unclouded by grief or romantic passion.
For me, pleasure trumped pain no matter how emotionally vulnerable I might be. Clouding my grief with romantic passion seemed the perfect antidote to all I’d been through the previous six months.
Nakayla took the champagne as I unlocked the door to my apartment. We stood in a long, narrow hallway where the aura of institutional sterility clung to the walls and doors. Sometimes I awoke during the night and heard the creaks of the old structure sound in rhythmic waves as if white-clad nurses still scurried from room to room, ministering to those whose minds were as connected to reality as the ghostly footsteps of their long-departed angels of mercy.
Nakayla kissed me gently behind the ear and whispered, “I’ll get the glasses while you slip out of something uncomfortable.”
I went to the bedroom where I could remove my artificial leg along with the sleeve and sock that served to attach the device and create a snug fit. Plus champagne in bed seemed the perfect way to pick up where Nakayla and I had left off at the office.
I folded my pants over the chair at my small desk and noticed the red light flashing on the answering machine. The caller ID displayed an unfamiliar number with a 973 area code. I had no idea who was calling me or from where. I punched the play button and sat on the bed.
As I reached to release my prosthesis, the voice stopped me cold. The last time I’d heard it had been the last morning my left leg had been my own.
“Hey, bro. The Blackwater swill wants to drown me. They know where you are and they’ll take more than your leg next time. Don’t call. I’m going to earth.” A beep signaled the end of the message.
Although I sat on a mountainside in Asheville, North Carolina, the horror of Iraq suddenly reached through the phone and grabbed me. The beep hadn’t ended a message. It began a nightmare.