Buried Deeds — Part 6 ( A Meghan Bode Mystery)

Meghan and her crew find themselves back at Wyndham Thicket Farm in mid-January as classes resume. Evelyn had been right. A few well-placed phone calls from her husband had fast-tracked the burial excavation permit—and removed the public notice requirement. Evelyn didn’t want anyone to know about the skeleton until she knew who it was.

Joining Meghan is Irene Kristoff, the university’s physical anthropologist. After clearing away the protective soil and plastic from the burial pit, the students are sent to work on other features while the two women excavate the skeleton. Meghan can sit on the ground while working on her side of the body, but Irene has to lie on her side, wedged between the cellar wall and one side of the feature.

“So you told the coroner and landowner this is from the 1800s or earlier,” Irene says. “Do you really think it could be Native American?”

“No, but I didn’t want to say anything more definite until we had a better look. I had my fingers crossed they wouldn’t ‘follow the yellow brick road,’ so to speak.”

“I’m surprised McVay didn’t catch on. He should’ve known the misplaced bricks mean someone dug through them to bury the body.”

“Maybe he didn’t think much about it once he knew it wasn’t a modern criminal case. And thank heaven Evelyn and Douglas are on vacation for another week. It gives me some time to figure out what the hell to tell them. I’ve got a bad feeling those old stories about a murdered slave or mistress aren’t legends after all.”

Irene eases herself away from the work to stretch her back. “We’ll know before long if it’s a male or female. Whoever it is, someone buried them quick. This pit was just big enough to fit the body.”

Meghan nods silently and stands to get the blood flowing in her legs again. She’s barely recovered from last fall’s excavation of a teenage boy murdered in the 1940s. No one shoves a loved one into a hole in the woods or the cellar, she thinks. And why am I the one who’s uncovering them now? Of all the plantations in Virginia, why did this body have to be here? If this dates to the Walkers’ time, Evelyn will be crushed.

The two women return to their work. By noon, the upper part of the skeleton is exposed. The body lies in a roughly fetal position on its right side.

“An adult male,” Irene says. “The left wisdom teeth are fully erupted, all the epiphyses are fused, and the bones are really robust.”

“Well, that rules out the mistress,” Meghan says. “So we’re looking at an African-American man?”

Irene studies the visible part of the body. “I’m not sure. The skull is narrower and the teeth smaller than I’d expect. But I can’t rule out an African-American mother and Caucasian father. He could still be a slave.”

“Evelyn will not want to hear this,” Meghan says, setting aside her trowel to rub her neck. “Unless….”

“Unless what?”

“Maybe it was the Tarletons and not the Walkers. The Tarletons bought the place in 1868. Maybe one of them killed somebody and buried him in the old house before they filled in the cellar.”

“Possible,” Irene says, sitting up to break for lunch. “It would’ve been easier then. I mean, if someone did it while this house was occupied, how much room did they have to work? This floor’s only what, a meter below the ground surface? You’d be digging the grave on your knees and bumping your head on the ceiling.”

“Not necessarily. The cellar’s not complete. It should be two or three feet deeper. But there’s been a lot of erosion, and I’d bet when the Tarletons tore down this house, they took down the upper bricks so they wouldn’t interfere with plowing. We’ve found some lying on the floor.”

“We need some diagnostic artifacts to find out. Think we’ll find any?”

“God, I hope so,” Meghan says. “Knowing my luck with this project, whoever buried him stripped him first.”

***

Meghan doesn’t ignore her students over lunch. She checks their work and notes while munching on an apple and trail mix. She’s pleased to hear them talking about the spring term’s courses and not speculating about the mystery burial.

In the distance, a dog barks. Meghan smiles. While Evelyn and Douglas vacation in the Caribbean, Maisy and Chess are spending the time at a luxury kennel. She won’t be tripping over their tennis balls or getting a faceful of fur as they stick their noses in her excavations. Her son, John, hasn’t picked the best time to ask for a puppy. Of course, husband Rick wants one, too, and Meghan’s outnumbered.

Nothing bigger than a cocker spaniel, she thinks. Absolutely no Irish Setters. Or anything drooling. Or high maintenance. Especially since I’ll be the one who ends up taking care of it.

After the break, Meghan and Irene return to the skeleton. It’s not long before Meghan’s worst fears are laid to rest.

“I’ve got some buttons,” she tells Irene. “And they look like silver.”

“Would a slave have silver buttons?”

“Not likely. Maybe they’re just silver-plated. I’ll take a closer look when we finish documenting them.”

“It’s funny, Meghan, I’m not seeing any obvious signs of manual labor. There’s no arthritic lipping on the vertebrae. And even though the bones are robust, they don’t show overly pronounced muscle attachments.”

“Maybe he wasn’t very old? Twenties?”

“Possible. And if he was a house slave, he wouldn’t have done as much heavy work as the field hands.”

“That would fit with silver-plated buttons. If he was a coachman or interacted with the family and guests, he’d be well-dressed.”

“But why did he end up buried in the—oh, hang on, what’s this?”

“What?” Meghan asks, peering across the body.

“It’s something metal. Near the right hip. What is it?”

Meghan wishes she had done her morning stretches as she reaches over the skeleton to clear away the loose dirt. The object takes shape beneath her brush.

“Whoa,” she says. “This changes everything.”

I hope you’ll stay tuned for Part 7 next Tuesday.

New to the Meghan Bode Mysteries? You can catch up with her first complete story and the previous installments of Buried Deeds with this link.

60 thoughts on “Buried Deeds — Part 6 ( A Meghan Bode Mystery)

  1. A bit too much “tell” instead of “show” near the end, where Meghan wishes she would have stretched. I’ve made a note in the Scrivener file to fix that for the expanded version.

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  2. JM, I love it when you leave us hanging right at the end! Especially when I don’t even know what to guess for the object that changes everything! Great story you’ve got going. I like how we are starting to know more about Meghan’s home life, too. ; )

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    • Meghan is a master of the cliffhanger, I think. 😉 As I just noted to TWLG, I need more of that in the novels to keep readers “hooked.” And I suspect Meghan’s already looking into obedience training…. 🙂

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    • Doesn’t she? Maybe she likes those old radio serials that always left the audience hanging at the end of every episode. And she wishes she could send Maisy and Chess to spend time with you to learn how they should behave. 😉

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    • Thanks, Brigitte! With a short story, every word has to be important, and dialogue has to be short—but informative and realistic. I hope the writing practice is improving my overall writing abilities. 😉

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  3. Noooooooo! “Something metal” near the hip? The suspense! Love the details as conclusions are formed.
    (Have you considered using the second sentence in the second paragraph as the first sentence? Seems stronger…maybe use the info about Irene as an apostrophe a little later? Not trying to meddle or annoy)

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    • That’s a great observation about the second paragraph. I’ll revise it in the extended version. And please feel free to offer comments like that. These installments really are drafts, so insights and suggestions are most definitely welcome. None of these is written more than a few days in advance, and they get minimal editing. No pressure there, hmm? 🙂

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      • I’ve been DYING to ask a writer about the actual process of sentence ordering, and this seems to be my entree.
        I often feel I have sentence dyslexia! I can honestly say nearly EVERY paragraph I write (in any setting, not just blogging) ends up with sentence 2 as sentence 1 when I go back to re-read my work. I could never hit “publish” without editting myself several times because I know I suffer from this problem.
        So is this common or is it some type of learning disability? (serious here…I’ve struggled with this issue since schooldays)

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        • If it’s a learning disability, then most of us have it, I think. 😉 It’s very common for fiction writers to not only get the “wrong” sentence first, we can start the story in the wrong spot. Some writers realize, after several drafts, that the story should begin with what is currently Chapter 5, for example. And we can get our sentences backwards, too, putting the result before the trigger. For example, “I ate a delicious dinner after the waiter brought it to the table.”

          Human thoughts are often jumbled and out of order, and that easily slips into our writing, especially in the early drafts. Good writers learn to watch for those slips when they’re editing. And it sounds like you’re in that group. 🙂

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  4. Not only am I learning great stuff about archaeological digging in a fun and suspenseful manner, I’m realizing that archaeologists need to do yoga to keep themselves limber. I imagine the muscles can get a little sore. 🙂

    Just curious–do you teach students?

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    • Oh, yeah. We can work in some really uncomfortable positions. Cemeteries are especially tough—you’re excavating one burial and only have two or three feet separating you from the next burial that a colleague is working on. Lying on our sides, crouching next to a small pit, leaning over a privy…. They take their toll on the muscles and joints.

      I did teach in graduate school. And, in a rare show of immodesty, I’ll admit that I got very good reviews and evaluations at the end of the semesters. 😉

      By the way, I did leave a suggestion for WordPress about a randomized blog roll widget. We’ll see if I get a response. 🙂

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      • “leaning over a privy”—well, now, that sounds like fun…

        I have no doubt you got good teaching reviews. Maybe you even threw in a story or two? 🙂 And thanks for making the suggestion to WordPress. Many other commenters thought your idea was great, too. And it would make my life easier if they’d do it. Jeez, shouldn’t that be enough for them? 😉

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        • Stories never hurt when teaching—or meeting new people at social events. Especially when the stories took place in exotic locations full of intrigue. 😉

          I even included the link to your post in my post to WP so they could check out the comments themselves. I don’t think I’ll hold my breath, even though I think it’s a good idea. Damn. I’m being immodest again. I’ve done that enough for a year now!

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          • That was smart to include the link. And who knows? WordPress is actually pretty good about listening to folks, so we’ll see.

            And believe me, immodest and you don’t even belong in the same sentence together. You are very humble, indeed. 🙂

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  5. I wanted you to know I stopped by, but I am so far behind on this I can’t catch up with the story from the beginning. But . . . love the cliffhanger you left us with! What is it? What is it!?

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    • If you ever find yourself with the time, there’s a page devoted to these stories. 🙂

      However, I think it’s safe to bet that you’re spending twice as much time or more blogging than you are working on your WIP. I know the feeling. My Muse and characters have made it clear that’s no longer acceptable to them. So this year, I cut back the blogging. Fewer comments in some cases, shorter ones in others. And two days a week where I don’t read others and only address new comments on mine.

      If I’m going to publish my novels, I have to finish them first. And I’m seeing other bloggers make that same commitment this year, too. The blog addiction has to give. Are you with us? 🙂

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  6. Oh, geez! Don’t do this to us… What on earth has she found?

    I really like learning what can be learned from bones. I’ve always enjoyed reading about archeological finds, so I’ve heard some of this stuff – so cool. Being a biologist, of course, I know that bones are living organs that are constantly remodeled during our lives.

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    • I swear—it’s all Meghan’s fault. She loves the cliffhangers!

      We think of bones as being so “solid.” And they are, to some extent. But they also show the effects of our individual lifestyles—how much exercise we get, how much heavy lifting we do, whether we’re strongly one-handed or ambidextrous. Some of the joints and vertebrae I’ve seen were so affected by arthritis, I wonder how the person could move. I’m sure it was extremely painful.

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  7. I don’t know you can avoid that telling moment. It didn’t stand out to me, though, since there’s lots of explanations of postures and positions.

    Strong moments between the two excavators, even though their dialogue is chatty: you’ve given enough details and background about the conflicts between them and their work (and the administrators), but it reads very natural to my reading ear. (Suitably academic, too! 🙂 )

    This is perhaps the most fun I’ve had with history/archaeology in a long time!

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    • Your last sentence brought a real smile to my face! In these stories I want to show some real archaeology in an entertaining setting. I guess it’s similar to the approach some writers take with historical novels. The history they give is correct; they simply incorporate fictional characters into the timeline and tell the story of their lives. Meghan’s “adventures” do happen to real archaeologists at times. And reading about them in fictional formats can make history a bit more interesting than some teachers do in their lectures. 😉

      I’m really trying to clean some of the “telling” out of my WIPs right now, so it’s in the front of my mind. I have to remember that sometimes it’s okay to tell in order to move things along.

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  8. Good grief! What is it that changes everything??????? I need to know!

    There is a little “telling”, but it certainly doesn’t detract from the story – I’m loving it 🙂

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    • Sorry, I can’t “tell” you yet—you’ll have to wait until next week. 🙂 But I promise I’ll reveal the story-changing artifact next Tuesday!

      Sometimes I think shorter stories can handle a bit more telling to keep the story moving with fewer words. At least I hope that’s the case. 😉

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    • Thanks, Margarita. 🙂 In the US, anthropology traditionally has four subfields: cultural anthropology, archaeology, physical (or biological) anthropology, and linguistics. In Europe and Canada, archaeology is more often grouped with history. Each of the subfields has its own theoretical bent and practices. And Meghan simply loves cliffhangers.That’s something I hadn’t expected when we started these stories. 🙂

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  9. Great cliffhanger, JM. And I’m not going to try guessing this one; I failed miserably the last time. I thought this particular segment moved gracefully and with a certain easy rhythm. Could be that the relationship between Irene and Meghan helped — no friction.

    I also liked Meghan’s inner thoughts which reveals much more of her personality and home life. Great job!

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    • Thanks, Kate. 🙂 I have the sneaking suspicion no one will guess the artifact I have in mind. There are many I could choose from, and even another archaeologist would have to guess. It’s not like Meghan suspected anything, either. But when she sees what it is, she realizes things aren’t what they appeared to be. That’s a necessary element of a mystery, I think. 😉

      I’m glad the flow between Meghan and Irene moved easily. That’s really what I wanted. These are two professionals and probably friends, too, within the department. On a different project, while they were working they might have talked about husbands or the latest movie they wanted to see.

      It was a surprise to me that John (and Rick) want to get a dog. And Mom’s the one who usually has to do the hard dirty work while the kids and husband do all the playing. 😉 No Irish Setters for Meghan!

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  10. What is the significance of the size of the corpse’s teeth? Is that an age determinant, or is she looking at the quality of the teeth to determine social status?

    Great and original, as always.

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    • That is an excellent question, and I wondered if someone would ask it. On a strictly metric level, there are measurable differences in the human skeleton between populations. I say strictly metric because in the past (19th and early 20th centuries), some scientists (and political leaders) ascribed a societal (racist) meaning to these differences (think social Darwinism and Hitler).

      However, there is always overlap, and these physical differences are simply the result of adaptations to different environments, foodstuffs, and the like. But in general, people of European descent tend to have longer, narrower skulls and narrower teeth than people of African or Asian descent. In this story, Irene is considering these general trends in the field. In the lab, she would take a series of measurements from the skull, teeth, and long bones, and enter them into mathematical formulas to generate results based on probability models.

      The story would quickly bore most readers if I focused on that. The artifact by the hip will speed things along. 😉

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      • Nice! I guess you have to have good eyes to be an archaeologist, but even better lashes.

        Thanks for clearing up the tooth-tech. I’m not surprised that scientists (and no doubt the informed public) ascribed racist and classist notions to similar findings, given the era we live in. Science is in principal objective, but with any human endeavor it can be difficult to erase all of our societal biases, particularly as so many of them are invisible to us.

        The idea that teeth would fare differently in different environments was what I meant when I asked if the size of the teeth was a determinate. I didn’t mean, for example, that the corpse was actually that of a horse.

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  11. I hate waiting each week for the next installment. For some reason I’m hoping it’s the body of a Tarleton, murdered in some sort of scandal. But I hope Meghan eases up on her dog restrictions, big dogs are so much fun!

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    • Happy Birthday, Weebs! 🙂 A Tarleton scandal, eh? Hmm…. No, no, mustn’t say more!

      I suspect Maisy and Chess aren’t the first large dogs that have knocked Meghan over. 😉 I bet her ideal dog is the size of a Yorkie with the energy of a 10-year-old Bulldog. John and Rick have other ideas, of course, but Meghan hasn’t told me the final outcome yet. 😉

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    • Thanks, Jagoda. 🙂 I’d like to think realistic archaeology can be entertaining. (And sneaking in some learning opportunities is fun for me.) Hollywood’s portrayals can be great fun, but they leave most of us rolling our eyes. 😉

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  12. I like the dialogue and how everything flows really easily as they’re trying to figure everything out. I also love any time dogs are mentioned! 🙂 Can’t wait to see how it all turns out now.

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    • I always worry about dialogue sounding realistic, so your comment and others are encouraging. I hope I’m bringing that to my novels, too. Meghan, however, is beginning to think she’s the only one who has a problem with Maisy and Chess! 😉

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    • Thanks, Kourtney. 🙂 I think Meghan must love those old serials because she loves to leave us hanging at these points! This is hardly a spoiler alert—she does it again in Part 7. 🙂

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