Poetic Archaeology A.8 — Meghan’s Brush With Forensic Archaeology

will the trail go cold

or can other skills win out

truth may have its day

(Catch up with Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, Part 5, Part 6, and Part 7)

Tom Sandberg shuts the last file cabinet drawer and sneezes. The basement of the sheriff’s office houses all the old case records from the county’s police departments. But his searches have raised only years of dust. He hasn’t found any missing person who fits the boy in the park.

How is that possible? he wonders. Who wouldn’t report their missing son?

Maybe the body was brought to the woods from another county. But that strikes him as unlikely. Travel in the 1940s was a bigger effort than today. And this park is 15 miles from any county line. Who would go to such lengths back then to bury a victim?

Sandberg grabs a tissue from the box on one of the cabinets. Someone on staff knows what it’s like down here. An image of his two kids comes to mind as he clears his sinuses. And he thinks of Becky’s suggestion to apply for a job in the big DC suburbs.

Drugs, gangs. Does he want to face them every day? Or have his kids get involved with them? Meth labs were a problem in this neck of the woods some years back, until tough laws on over-the-counter drugs pushed them further west. But the pipelines still lead to the big cities and suburbs.

The body counts are a hell of a lot higher the closer you get to the capital, he thinks. Who needs that?

No, this is the best place for the family. The kids are doing well in school and have good friends. Why tear them away from that? They can drive to DC on weekends when they want and take in its good side without dealing with the bad. Becky knows that. She’ll understand.

Sandberg checks his watch. Time to leave for Meghan Bode’s lab. She’ll be disappointed in his lack of results. He shares her desire to identify the boy and give him a proper burial. But the harsh reality is some victims are never identified or even found. And this case, which never officially existed, will remain unsolved.


When Sandberg arrives at the lab, Meghan is working on her computer. The boy’s skeleton is laid out neatly on the adjoining table.

“Was it an accident?” he asks.

“No,” Meghan says, rising to show him the bones. “Irene Kristoff—she’s our physical anthropologist—said he was hit with something like a shovel. Twice. Once on the left side of the head and after that a more forceful strike on the back of the skull.”

Her voice trembles. “If the first blow didn’t kill him, the second did. Which means the intent was to kill, right?”

“Yeah. Once, maybe it’s an act of blind rage or a horrible accident. But a second, stronger blow? That’s intent.”

“Did you find a missing person’s case?”

Sandberg looks at the boy’s skeleton and shakes his head. “Nothing that fits him. Who wouldn’t report a missing son?”

“How about the parent who killed him?”

Sandberg leans against a counter. “That’s the last thing I expected to hear from you, Dr. Bode.”

“I read too many murder mysteries. And my husband watches too many crime shows.”

“Family’s always a good place to start for a murder investigation. But I’d expect someone to file a report with the police—friends, a teacher, another relative. And there’s nothing.”

“Maybe they were afraid to. I’ve been thinking about this all weekend. And I had an idea.”

Meghan returns to her computer and shows Sandberg the screen.

“I thought the old newspapers would cover a missing person. And some of them are online. So far I haven’t found anyone who fits, either. But the papers all have columns dedicated to local doings. The ladies’ auxiliary was holding a charity drive. Which men were drafted and heading to basic training. Mrs. So-and-So and her children were making a trip to visit family in another state. Mr. Smith was traveling to DC on business. Maybe there’s a clue in those stories.”

It’s a long shot, Sandberg thinks. But the determination in Meghan’s expression is unmistakable. He’s known it and kept with cases that made others give up. He won’t try to dissuade her.

“It’s worth a try,” he says. “But you have to be prepared not to find anything. This isn’t TV. Some cases are never solved.”

“I know. But I have to try. If I don’t find anything online, I’ll go to the state archives. They’ve got more papers on microfilm. If there’s anything, I’ll find it.”

“I don’t doubt that, Dr. Bode. Let me know how it goes.”

Will Meghan find a clue in old newspapers? We’ll find out next Tuesday.

52 thoughts on “Poetic Archaeology A.8 — Meghan’s Brush With Forensic Archaeology

    • Haha! Thanks, Vanessa. 🙂 Of course, Meghan would like you to know it’s pronounced more like the Dutch. So it’s “Bo duh.” But she’s smiling as she says it. 🙂


    • Same here. 🙂 I think Becky will understand staying put. There are some parts of DC I’d love to live in—if I could afford them. But there are others that are not safe at all. Like Sandberg, I’ll settle for the easy day trips. 🙂


  1. His thoughts about his family and DC made me jump to the thought there will be an affair up ahead. Makes me want to come back for more 🙂


  2. I like how you are building this story, first with the two characters, adding in the background info about archaeology, the element/history of the steel penny to narrow down the time frame, and now expanding to D.C. It is really growing!! Way to go!!


    • I’m so glad it’s still holding your attention. 🙂 The story’s gotten a bit more detailed than I thought it would and extended over a few more weeks. When it’s done, I’m going to have to give serious thought to turning it into a stand-alone version and shopping it for publication. . . .


  3. This is the part of these types of stories I love – finding the answers through very distant places. I know they may not find anything, but the looking, that is really interesting to me.


    • I think we’re getting close to those blooms. 😉 There might be a clue or two already peppered in the story so far. . . . Yes, those buds are getting bigger. 🙂


    • Thanks, Jagoda. 🙂 I’ve really gotten to like these two characters, too. I’m sure they have their flaws—we just aren’t seeing much of that in a short story setting. But they’re good people. 🙂


  4. More great stuff! I’m curious, now that you’re a ways into this series, are you becoming more comfortable with the present tense? Do you think you’d write a novel in this tense or will you stick to past?


    • Thanks, Carrie. 🙂 It’s funny. I am getting more comfortable with writing in the present tense. But I’m not sure I could carry it through an entire novel. I just started reading the third Ruth Galloway mystery, and at times, I still feel uncomfortable with the present tense. I won’t rule out the possibility of writing a novel that way, though. After all, I didn’t expect it in this story. Some characters may decide to blindside me with it for their novel!


      • I haven’t read her third one yet. You’ll have to tell me if you like it or not. I just started the new John Grisham book (which got good reviews), and I see he’s writing in present tense. Seems to be the new trend.


        • I will let you know how I like the Galloway book. I wonder what Grisham’s long-time fans think of the switch. Do they like it? Or have a hard time with it? It’s got to be done well, I think. As 4amWriter said on one of Meghan’s early posts, present tense can come across sounding like stage directions. And I don’t want mine to read that way.


          • I’m already sucked into his book, so I guess it hasn’t distracted me too much. But there are things going through my mind as I read it, for example, the chunks of telling instead of showing. 🙂 I think this happens in books a lot, and we forgive it, because the story has drawn us in. I think as writers, trying to get rid of all telling is probably not possible. Sometimes you just need to move the story along. And now I’ve digressed…


  5. It’s very interesting to learn what resources are available. And the absence of a missing person report could be a kind of thickening of the plot. Of course I know that realistically the investigation could very well go nowhere, but I still hope Megan finds something.


    • In real life, dead ends are too often where investigations end up. But sometimes, we do find out what happened. Since this is fiction, maybe there’s a better chance for a successful resolution to the mystery. Maybe. 😉


  6. It’s sounding more and more like a novel to me! I love how the fleshing out of the characters continues along with the mysteries. I’m looking forward to seeing what’s in those old newspapers.


    • Meghan will be straining her eyes and getting a headache from reading too much microfilm, I’m sure of that. But newspapers can be a treasure trove of information. . . .

      So far Meghan’s not jumping in with a full-blown novel idea, but I wouldn’t put it past her! I get the feeling she’s being patient and waiting until I finish the other two first. She’s a really nice character to work with. 🙂


  7. Nicely done once again, JM. I think you’ve found a winner here — not just with the story, but posting it on your blog. I don’t know if you had a lot of anxiety over that or not, but it is one challenge I have not been able to force myself to do on blogs. 100-word challenges don’t count. 😉

    You have really developed the inner stories of your protags here, and it reminds me of the conversation we had about sci/fi and that characters’ inner stories aren’t as fully fleshed out as they are in other genres. How are you enjoying this aspect of the writing? Do you find writing the inner story to be less appealing?


    • Thanks, Kate. 🙂 Had I realized what was happening when I did the first post for this story, I might not have hit publish! I honestly didn’t intend for Meghan’s “brush” with forensic archaeology to become a short story. I thought I would just describe what an archaeologist can face in the real world and use Meghan as an example. And then those three little lines of dialogue sneaked in at the end . . . in the present tense.

      That’s the first I knew Meghan wanted to dictate her adventure to me. 🙂 And I bit the bullet and decided to continue it “live” on the blog. With no clear idea of the plot. Yes, I’m still a pantser. 🙂 After a handful of posts, I had a general idea of where the story would go, but not too many details. Those are still hashed out and written up the week before posting. No pressure there, right?! I didn’t realize it would take this many posts, and I’m not sure how many are left—although it should only be a few.

      I’m not sure if the development of the inner stories is simply that I’m maturing as a writer or that this story and the characters are more conducive to writing them. I am enjoying it, but I also wonder how well I would carry it through if I base a full novel on this. There’s not as much room in a short story for bringing out character flaws and weaknesses in addition to the other traits. . . . The first real test may be in Summer at the Crossroads. Am I doing a better job of character development and inner stories there? I’ll have to see. . . .


  8. It was murder… So are you still having fun writing it? Had enough? Good writing exercise? Or just enjoying the whole thing? I think you are doing good with this.

    Nice haiku as well. I almost missed it, my connection was giving me problems yesterday and odd holes on websites / blogs.


    • Still having fun and enjoying the exercise. There shouldn’t be too many installments left for this short story, although I’m not sure what the final number will be. And then I’ll have to think about maybe turning it into something for formal publication. We’ll see. 😉


      • I was thinking about how you could put that together and wondering if you would have to drop a few of the facts for fear of Megan being a bit of a know it all. It works great in smaller parts, and I could be wrong, it might work fine when put together, but it would be interesting to see, and I figure you could change it in some small ways and see if you could do something else with it.


        • Doing the story up as a professional submission would undoubtedly require some major character revisions. And as I struggle with how to handle the next round of rewrites to the WIP, I’m not feeling confident in my ability to better flesh out the characters. Fortunately, Meghan isn’t being pushy about “more time in the sun.”


          • I read one piece of advice recently that said read up on some tips on fleshing out characters etc, then revisit the tips a few days later, but don’t go straight to your manuscript. Visit that a week or more after the initial tip reading and it is easier to marry the two. No idea if that works but it sounded an interesting theory.


  9. This is really great JM! I can’t wait to find out more about this murder–I love a good mystery! 🙂


    • Thanks, Kourtney! 🙂 I enjoy a good mystery, too, but I didn’t think I could ever write one. Maddie and Jack thought about it for Death Out of Time, but I wasn’t cut out for doing that one as a mystery. So they went back to time travel. Jack might be wondering what happened, though, with Meghan and Sandberg! 😀


      • They take some plotting. 🙂 I read dozens of cozy mysteries before I wrote a book with a mystery. BTW, I love this line “Once, maybe it’s an act of blind rage or a horrible accident. But a second, stronger blow? That’s intent.” It stuck in my head. Love it.


    • It is so nice to hear that these two are resonating with readers. 🙂 What’s funny is how someone as impatient as I am turns around and serializes a short story on the blog! Cliffhangers and multi-parters drive me nuts!


  10. I saw this in my Reader earlier this week and didn’t have the time to read it. So glad I saved it for today, when I can actually savor and enjoy it! I like Meghan’s determination, and that subtle reminder that she’s a researcher, the reference to state archives. Very nice! xoM


    • If all goes well, I will get Tuesday’s installment scheduled tomorrow. 🙂 If all goes better, I’ll be answering comments and reading other blogs that day, too!


  11. Pingback: Poetic Archaeology A.9 — Meghan’s Brush With Forensic Archaeology « jmmcdowell

    • Thanks! 🙂 I’ve spent many hours going through old records on microfilm, both for the job and personal genealogical research. There are interesting tidbits there that could generate thousands of novels. A little of that experience may have slipped into Meghan’s discussion. 😉


  12. Pingback: Poetic Archaeology A.10 — Meghan’s Brush With Forensic Archaeology « jmmcdowell

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