One

Samuel Benjamin Atkins left the diner's air-conditioned shadows and paused to study the endless blue depths overhead. There was a taste of springtime freshness to the early May air, but he'd bet his bottom dollar that North Carolina summers were a long march of heat and high humidity. Not that he'd still be around. Not that he'd mind a few Carolina summers of his own, for that matter. Anything would be better than the stifling mugginess of another Washington August.

Back in his car, he drove a further thirty miles along the interstate before entering the Charlotte Turnpike. Twenty minutes later he was among the steel and glass towers of a bustling city. Ben Atkins took the Center City exit, stopped to ask directions from an old-timer drowsing in a downtown park, and shortly pulled up in front of the new city tower.

Windows down and tie loosened, he sat there a few moments to get his bearings. It was a habit bred through long experience, rolling into strange territory where every little detail helped to ensure his safety. Charlotte was a strange mishmash, one he had seen in several other eastern cities. High towers shouting wealth and newfound prosperity sprouted beside tired buildings with smoky glass and time-washed names. Overhead stretched enclosed walkways crowded with pretty ladies and grim-faced executives. Down below, the sidewalks were nearly empty. A group of young black men loitered outside a Burger King. A few old men sat on park benches in what his wife used to call farmer's fancy dress—white shirt, light colored slacks, thin socks, black shoes, bow tie, and straw hat with the brim bent up. A pair of policemen walked by, studiously ignored by the blacks, solemnly greeted by the old men. A trio of businesswomen bustled past his car, heads together in serious discussion, blind to all but their world of money and power. Behind them walked a family of five, the man and his son in dungarees and work-stained boots, the wife and daughters in matching print dresses. These were the kind of folks with whom he had always felt more comfortable, inhabitants of the farming world out beyond the city's reach.

Ben Atkins pulled into the multistory parking garage and took the tunnel over the street to the city tower. This was another modern oddity he had often seen but never grown accustomed to. The skyscraper housed the regional judicial system, precinct station, prosecutors, and five tightly sealed floors given over to the county lockup. Ben took the elevator to the floor reserved for federal offices, spoke to the receptionist, and was guided down a bland hallway. At its end stood double glass doors emblazoned with the seal of the Federal Bureau of Investigation. Inside, a second receptionist took his name and asked him to have a seat. He settled down and practiced what all law enforcement officers became experts at—waiting.

Ben Atkins was forty-two years old, six feet four, and 220 very solid pounds. The eight months in Washington had softened him some, but not much. The slight blurring to his craggy features was also touched by a fluorescent tan, but the leathery toughness carved by eighteen years of Wyoming wilderness remained for all to see. His grip was still iron hard, his eyes calm and far seeing, his voice quiet, his manner reserved. He had traversed the strange waters of bureaucracy and remained his own man.

"First time I've ever known anybody from Washington to show up early." A lean, feisty man in his early thirties walked over. "Wayne Oates, senior resident agent. Welcome to Charlotte."

"Ben Atkins." He tested the grip as was expected, and gave the formal identification. "I've been appointed chief inspector, to determine whether your findings warrant moving on to a full criminal investigation."

"Good trip down?"

"Great. First time I've ever been in these parts. Wish I'd brought my fishing gear."

"Tell you what. Let's finish up this little ditty, then take a couple days off. I'll ferry you out to a place where the fish sit up and beg to be caught." The man's smile didn't touch his eyes, which were busy sizing Ben up. "You a lawyer or an accountant? Every headquarters man I've ever met is one or the other."

"I studied law," Ben said, not minding the inspection. "Never got much chance to use it. Spent most of my time out west. Wyoming, the Dakotas, a while in Arizona, but I didn't like that so much. Place is growing like a prairie fire, becoming a distant suburb of Los Angeles."

"You don't say." Wayne Oates gave Ben another up-and-down glance. "You must be tired as last Tuesday of Washington."

Ben thought he detected a slight envy beneath the words, which was hardly a surprise. An ambitious man would no doubt find the small Charlotte office stifling. "I don't pay those Washington folks enough mind to let them get under my skin."

Wayne Oates grasped his upper arm, then guided him through the gate by the reception desk. "I was worried Washington would send down some slope-headed, wet-nosed bureaucrat who couldn't find his own feet without some regulation manual."

"Your report made this situation sound pretty serious," Ben ventured.

"Tell you what," Wayne pushed open an office door and ushered Ben in before him, "why don't you sit yourself down over there. I'll wrangle up some coffee, then I'll show you what I've got. You can make up your own mind. How does that sound?"

Wayne departed and returned bearing two mugs of standard issue coffee—too many hours on an overhot burner. Ben took his black and pretended to like it just fine. Wayne Oates was somewhere around five-ten with black, precisely trimmed hair. He bore a pockmarked face that spoke of living through some hard times. Raised on a farm, Ben guessed. Not much harder life than that. Wayne Oates wore his gray suit coat over a white shirt with a button-down collar and club tie. His feet were hidden inside wing tips that weighed in at about five pounds per shoe. His quiet, gray eyes remained fastened on Ben, giving nothing away. "How much do you know?" he asked.

"Why don't we begin with the assumption that I don't know anything at all. It'd be pretty close to the truth, anyway. I've never been down in this area before in my life." He sipped from his mug. "You raised on a farm?"

"Tobacco." The gray eyes blinked. "You?"

"No, my father was a steelworker. Born and raised in Pittsburgh. Left me with a hankering for wide open spaces. Liked what I saw of your area on the way down. Different from out west, but nice. Never seen such colors. Sky out west is a washed-out blue, and there aren't so many trees. Man could get attached to a place like this real fast." That was enough, he decided. Let's get started, friend.

Blank eyes regarded him a moment longer before Wayne Oates walked to a roll-down map covering a good portion of the side wall. "This is the southern half of central North Carolina. The region's called the Piedmont, and is mostly low-lying hills that run from the Coastal Plains region of the east to the Appalachians and Great Smoky Mountains west of here."

His hands circled the large concentration of roads and names at the map's bottom. "The largest metropolitan center is right here, around Charlotte. Outside of this area the region's mostly made up of towns under twenty thousand in population. The Piedmont has been one of the fastest growing areas of the nation since the early seventies. But there are still some places, like here." Wayne Oates pointed to an area two-thirds of the way up the right-hand side. "Regions that haven't seen much change for fifty years. Maybe more."

"Why's that?" Ben reached into his side pocket and pulled out notepad and pen. Not so much because he needed to write it down as he wanted to show how serious he was taking it all.

"Number of reasons. Location's bad, off the main roads. Companies tend to move near interstates, big cities, and airports. The region's hillier around there, with less level terrain available for development. Nearest technical school's fifty miles away, nearest university over a hundred. Also the people just aren't that interested in leaving the past behind. The towns are mostly small farming communities, a thousand or less in population. People around those parts are kind of set in their ways, not much concerned with keeping up with the rest of the world."

"That the area we're talking about, where your hand is?"

"That's it. Starts west of U.S. 64 here, goes northeast toward Jonesville. No state highways within twenty miles, as you can see. This ringed section in the middle here is Albany National Park. Fellow down at the university reckons it contains remnants of the world's oldest mountain range. Now they're just a trio of steep-sided hills. Old Indian territory, so they say. Locals claim the park itself used to be sacred land; only the chiefs and medicine men were allowed on those three hills. Haven't been any Indians in these parts for almost a hundred years."

Wayne Oates walked back and sat down behind his desk, his face and eyes and voice still as blank as a wall. "Area we're talking about is twenty-four miles long, eleven miles wide at the thickest point. Shaped kind of like a pregnant cigar, with the park at its center. The park itself is the smallest in the nation."

"Why include a state park in your figures?"

Wayne Oates stared at him silently, then went on as though Ben had never spoken. "Two hundred thousand acres, three thousand of which are inside the park. Two towns, one at each end. Five good-sized lakes totaling forty-five hundred acres. The rest of the land is mostly given over to small holdings. North Carolina's traditionally been home to small farmers, except the old cotton area in the southeast. Hundred acres is a good-size farm around these parts, especially if you're growing tobacco. The rest of the acreage around here produces soybeans and corn, and some truck farmers raise fruit and vegetables. Nice area. Good people, or used to be. Some of the families down there have been working the same patch of land since before there even was a United States of America."

Ben tried again. "And now somebody's going around buying it up?" Maybe some strong-arm tactics. Still, that wouldn't make it a federal matter unless they could show organized crime was involved. But what would the Mafia want with a backwoods area of North Carolina?

"Far as we can figure, land started changing hands two years ago—"

"Two years?" Ben exclaimed, then instantly backed down. "Sorry, it just seems like a long time for somebody to be operating undetected in an area like that."

"I didn't say somebody. This isn't the work of one big buyer." Wayne Oates's eyes turned to smoky ice. "We're not down here sitting on our hands, no matter what you folks up in Washington might think."

"No one said you were," Ben said quietly. It was an old story, this conflict between field offices and Washington, both thinking the other did nothing besides warm their chairs, produce paper, spend money, and fight to protect their jobs.

Wayne Oates remained unappeased, "If it was somebody, we'd have wrapped this up long ago. Until last year it was just people moving in, others moving out."

Ben leaned back in his chair, crossed his arms, tried to keep his mind from jumping ahead.

"Back last Christmas, the former sheriff paid us a visit. He'd just retired, and was right angry over the man they'd chosen to take his place. The  little towns in that area are called Douglas and Hamlin, total population about thirty-six hundred. Or was. The sheriff told us people he'd known all his life were picking up and leaving town—lock, stock, and barrel. Businesses were being bought up and changed beyond all recognition. Those were his exact words. Beyond all recognition."

"And you still don't know who they are?"

In reply, Wayne Oates unfolded a surveyor's map. "Land records show they started here and here." He pointed to north and south of the park. "They're the two least populated areas. Then it started spreading. Pretty slow at first, but like wildfire these past eighteen months." Wayne Oates ran a hand through his hair. "Local contractors've been going crazy up there. Near as we can figure, the building permits show some twenty-eight hundred new homes going up on the north side alone." He gave Ben a moment to take that in, then added, "The farms are changing too. Going from steady cash crops like tobacco and soy to vegetables, fruit, free-range animals. Lot of new construction there too. Silos, greenhouses, and three new packing and refrigeration plants."

Ben felt himself tightening down. This was something real, something big. His mind raced through possibilities and came back repeatedly to that hated word, cult. "Any new industry?"

"The area holds two textile companies and a furniture maker. Or it did. Then all of a sudden, after no new development for decades, the place just starts exploding. A couple of assembly operations, two huge distribution centers."

Ben Atkins inspected the map. "I thought you said there weren't any major roads out there."

"That's right. There aren't. And these people aren't building any new ones. All the community investment is going into new water and waste treatment, a medical clinic, underground cables—that sort of thing. Most of the new houses have generators and deepwater wells; must cost a fortune. Everything's legal and aboveboard, right down to permits for a brand-new sewage system."

"And nobody's noticed anything until now?" Two years. The thought chilled him. Some revolutionary faction might have dug in and prepared for serious battle.

"Sure they did, but the contractors are out there making money hand over fist, so who's gonna say something and maybe kill the goose that's been laying the golden egg? One told me he'd been given a job to put up an apartment village four miles east of Douglas. That's the town on the area's western border there. Two hundred units, meeting hall, little shopping complex, sports area. What happens, they agree to his price, his first price, then up it 10 percent, provided he finishes by the end of next month."

"What happens if somebody doesn't want to sell? There's got to be some people in a place like that who won't move, no matter what they're offered."

"Sure, there're some. Less than you might think, though. And the answer is, nothing. I checked on that first off. Some are old people who don't have anyplace else to go and don't care much about money. Some are the farming families I told you about. Two of the local pastors. Some of the townsfolk. Two, maybe three, hundred total. Out of close to five thousand. Far as I can make out, those who've stayed have been left pretty much alone. No harassment. None. Not of anybody who stayed, and not of any of the families I could find who've left. The retired sheriff said as far as he knew everyone's been treated with the utmost courtesy. Those're his words. Utmost courtesy."

Ben straightened his back, stretched as far as he could. He had a tendency to stiffen up if he leaned over like that too long. Too much time on horseback. "Any chance you could take me out and show me this setup?"

"You kidding?" Wayne Oates smiled grimly. "I wouldn't miss this for the world." 

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