The Sandburg Connection: A Sam Blackman Mystery #3

The Sandburg Connection: A Sam Blackman Mystery #3

It should have been routine, a simple assignment for PI Sam Blackman and his partner Nakayla Robertson. Follow a history professor who's suing a spinal surgeon for malpractice and catch ...

About The Author

Mark de Castrique

Mark de Castrique grew up in the mountains of western North Carolina where many of his novels are set. He’s ...

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Chapter One

The beep caught me in mid-bite. I glanced down at the BlackBerry on the table next to my side order of hush puppies and read the text message, “She’s leaving campus early.”

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.”

“Why?”

“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?”

“I’m thinking.”

“What?”

“Goats.”

“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.

“Excuse me.”

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.”

“No problem. Rick, I’m going to head on to the high school for the auditions. God, some of these kids think they’re trying out for American Idol.” He tipped his hat to me. “I’m Arthur Thrash. Visiting Artistic Director. You don’t sing, do you?”

“No, not unless you can put my shower on stage.”

He laughed. “Sounds like Rick. He paints flats and sings flat, but he’s a hell of an actor. Someday you’ll see the name Rick Torrence on a Broadway marquee.” Thrash headed toward the parking lot, twirling his hat on his finger. “Come back tomorrow,” he called over his shoulder. “You and your friend will love the show. Steel Magnolias.

“He’s chipper,” I said.

Rick Torrence, future Broadway star, flat painter and flat singer, dipped the roller in the pan at his feet. “You would be too if you thought you were God’s mentor.”

“Sorry. I didn’t realize I was in the presence of the divine.”

“Oh, yeah.” He waved his roller over the flat in the sign of the cross. “And Artie beheld the flat. And Artie saw that it was good.”

“He said you were a hell of an actor.”

“Because I laugh at his jokes. Believe me, that’s an Academy-Award-winning performance.”

I made no comment. Instead, I said, “I’d better see if I can find my friend at the Sandburg house.”

Rick pushed the roller up and down the unpainted surface. “You should have set a more specific place to meet.”

“Yeah, my mistake. Thanks for the advice.”

“Artie’s right about the show. It’s a great production. The women are terrific.”

“I’m all for terrific women.”

He stopped painting, turned, and gave a conspiratorial smile. “I’m with you. Nothing like being a straight guy in the theatre.”

I left Don Juan to his showbiz career. As soon as I was out of earshot, I phoned Nakayla. “You’re a decent detective.”

“So, she’s at the Sandburg farm.”

“Yep. Though I haven’t found her yet. Where are you?”

“Coming off I-26. Ten minutes away.”

“I’ll look for the goats. When you get here, you’ll find her car in the Flat Rock Playhouse parking lot. Better stay close to it in case I miss her.”

“What about your leg? Maybe you should wait by the car and let me find her.”

“No. She’s already got a head start on us. How tough can it be to walk to a barn?”

Pretty damn tough. Adjacent to the parking lot were restrooms and a display of photographs of Sandburg. Quotations from his writings were interspersed among them. The white farmhouse stood across a pond and up a steep meadow. I followed the pathway over the dam of the pond and came to a trail marker warning the distance to the house was three-tenths of a mile and an elevated climb of 110 feet. Special transportation could be provided for those requiring assistance. I refused to use some old folks’ minibus to chase down Janice Wainwright.

I started up the hill. The path was well maintained and cleared of roots and rocks, but the incline rivaled a staircase. Benches were scattered along the way, a precaution against visitors collapsing on the ground. I looked through the woods to the nearby service road. Maybe the minibus wasn’t such a bad idea.

The temperature must have been in the high seventies, warm for late April, and I could feel perspiration starting to soak the sleeve of my prosthesis. That could create irritation, but sitting down and putting on a dry sleeve wasn’t an option. About two-thirds of the way up the hill, the path split, the left ascending to the house and the right to the barn and hiking trails. I pursued the goats.

A man and woman sat on a bench where the path leveled and a rustic red barn and outbuildings were visible through the trees. The couple must have been in their sixties and looked exhausted. The woman gulped from a water bottle and the man leaned on a walking stick held between his knees.

I stopped to catch my breath. “I guess Mr. Sandburg didn’t run down the hill to get his morning paper.”

The man laughed. “You’d have to be half goat yourself to scamper up and down this mountain.”

“Yeah. I’m trying to catch a friend. I got here late. She’s in her forties. Jeans. Brown shirt. Might have had her backpack. Did you see her at the barn?”

“No,” he replied. “But there was a woman with a backpack headed up Glassy Mountain.”

“What’s that?”

He pointed with his walking stick. “The mountain behind us. A rock dome’s at the top. You can see almost thirty miles to Asheville.”

“How long’s the trail?”

“The marker says a mile and three-tens, but it sure seems longer.”

“That’s because we’re out of shape, Fred.” The woman wiped her forehead with the back of her hand. “We sat on a bench with her. We were coming down.”

“And she was going to the top?”

The woman nodded. “That’s kind of the point. But she seemed pretty tired. Maybe she’s waiting for you.”

“Thanks.” I hurried on. The path forked and a sign indicated Glassy Mountain to the left. The incline rose sharply. I called Nakayla. “She’s going up Glassy Mountain. If I can get a picture of her at the top, we may have a very happy client.”

“Are you sure?”

“Yes. Some hikers described her down to the backpack.”

“I’m pulling into the lot,” Nakayla said. “Go on and keep your camera ready.”

For over twenty minutes I struggled upward. A few people passed me on their way down. If one had been Janice, I would have greeted her with a smile because to ignore a fellow hiker would have drawn more attention.

The trail began to snake back and forth with greater frequency, an indication I was nearing the summit. I slowed my pace, mostly because I was tired but also to avoid suddenly overtaking Janice around a blind switchback. Mountain laurel and orange flaming wild azaleas obscured the trail above.

Footsteps sounded behind me and I glanced over my shoulder. Nakayla moved at twice my speed, climbing with short, quick strides that ate up the slope. She waved. I stopped and tried to catch my breath so I could talk without gasping. The stump of my leg burned like someone had put hot coals in the socket of my prosthesis.

“You left your car.” I squeezed out the four words between gulps of air. Rivulets of sweat stung my eyes and tickled my neck. Nakayla’s light cocoa skin glistened with a sheen of perspiration. It was amazing that the same activity could make her look beautiful and me want to dial for an ambulance.

She must have seen my pain. “I decided to follow because I remembered how steep the trail is. Why don’t you let me go on? The rock outcrop’s just around the next bend.”

“No. I’ve come this far, I’m going to finish. We’ll do it together.”

Nakayla shook her head. “Not a good idea. We don’t want her to notice us. It may be the 21st century but a black and white couple still draws attention here.”

Unfortunately, she had a point. “Then you stay. The trail’s steep and rocky. You can take photos of her going down after she passes you.”

She jabbed me on the shoulder. “I think I know what to do. I didn’t just fall off a truckload of turnips.”

“No. It’s been at least a year since that happened.” I hurried away before she could hit me again.

In less than thirty yards, the trees thinned as bare rock broke through the soil. A sign reading “Glassy Mountain Overlook” pointed to a wider patch ahead. The gray granite began sloping downward and my artificial leg transferred every jarring step into a painful stab. I paused to switch on my camera. Janice had to be somewhere right ahead of me.

“No!” A woman’s voice shouted. Then the word grew to a shrill scream. Abruptly the sound ceased, cutoff like a plug had been pulled on a radio.

“Nakayla, hurry!” I ran as fast as I could over the rock. It spread more than fifty yards, curving downward to the trees below and opening a spectacular view of the valley.

Rain and wind had carved ripples into the exposed stone making the footing uncertain. I turned sideways, putting my good leg lower so it bore most of my weight. On the granite, a splotch of smeared blood shone red in the sunlight. Then my chest tightened as I saw Janice’s body twisted against a tree at the base of the rock. A sudden movement to my right caught my eye. A brown blur flashed beyond the rhododendron and disappeared.

“Sam. Be careful!” Nakayla stood above me.

“It’s Janice. She fell.” I sidestepped, as the descent grew steeper.

Nakayla scrambled past me, more agile on the slope. When I joined her, she was kneeling beside Janice with her fingers pressed against the carotid artery in the woman’s neck. Blood flowed from a wound somewhere underneath her hair.

“She’s still alive but she’s taken a nasty crack to the head,” Nakayla said. “I’m afraid to move her. Call 911.”

I gave a brief account to the emergency operator, asked for an ambulance, and requested the rangers at the Sandburg home be notified. They might have some all-terrain vehicle that could come up the wide trail.

A moan slipped from Janice’s lips and her eyes fluttered. She looked at us. Pain and confusion mingled in her gaze.

“We’re going to get you out of here,” Nakayla whispered.

“Wendy.” The word was a wisp of breath.

“Don’t talk. Help’s on the way.”

Janice reached up and brushed Nakayla’s cheek with her fingers. “Wendy. It’s the verses. Sandburg’s verses.” The “s” sounds hissed faintly and died on a gusty breeze. The injured woman’s eyes closed and she spoke no more.

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