Meghan and her crew pull into the drive at Wyndham Thicket Farm early Monday morning. The gate is closed, but Jackson Carter is waiting and opens it for her. Meghan rolls down the truck window and leans out.
“Why the locked gate, Mr. Carter?”
“Too many curious people. They want to see where “the body” was found. They started driving up to the house Saturday morning, bothering the guests—and the Brownes. Some of them walked into the fields without so much as asking for permission. Can you imagine what they would say if we did the same in their yard? Miss Evelyn’s been beside herself all weekend, even though we locked up and called in all the staff to make sure no one’s coming in from other properties. You shouldn’t run into anyone, but let me know if you do.”
“Oh, no,” Meghan says, now glad that she locked her lab and office this morning. “But this should all blow over soon. The next story will come along to distract everyone before you know it.”
When she reaches the parking lot, she emails the Anthropology department to warn everyone about potential “visitors” and to remind them not to let anyone into the archaeology lab. There’s no law giving anyone “the right” to see Josiah Kent’s skeleton.
The air is frosty, and the soil crunches underfoot as she and the crew carry field supplies to the site. As they unpack their gear and remove the protective plastic sheeting from the open units, a voice calls out from behind them. “Small world, Dr. Bode.”
Meghan straightens and turns to face the newcomer, a solidly built man with black hair and brown eyes. “Detective Sandberg? How nice to see you. I thought a regular officer would be here.”
The two met several months before, when Sandberg consulted with Meghan after a jogger’s dog found a bone in a county park. The bone turned out to be human, and Meghan was brought in to excavate the skeleton. She identified the victim through historic newspaper accounts, solving a murder no one had even known had happened.
Tom Sandberg shoves his hands into his coat pockets. “So did I. But a uniform isn’t good enough for some people.”
“I think I understand. Can I do anything to help?”
“Tell me what you saw on Tuesday.”
Meghan recounts how she saw two flashes of light from the woods while in the cellar and then one when they were loading the trucks.
“Where were you standing?”
She shows Sandberg the spot, and he climbs into the cellar with her.
“And where did you see the flashes?”
Meghan points and tries to describe the relative height and position, but the tree branches all look alike.
“Let’s try another way,” Sandberg says. “Got any duct tape?”
They walk back to the parking lot where Meghan grabs a roll from her truck and Sandberg pulls a flashlight and binoculars from his car. Returning to the site, he takes one of Meghan’s shovels and attaches the flashlight to the end of the handle at a right angle and flips the switch. The beam is bright and intense, and Meghan can see it even in the morning light.
Sandberg heads to the tree line and raises the flashlight. After a few minutes of Meghan calling out “a few steps to your right—too far” and “a few inches higher—not that much,” he has an idea where to look in the woods.
While Sandberg searches for evidence, Meghan continues her work in the house cellar. She’s relieved that none of the other floor bricks are out of place—as far as she can tell. More than a third of the area remains to be excavated. Please, no more skeletons, she thinks. One is one too many.
Other than Josiah Kent’s skeleton, the artifacts in the cellar are what she expects from a house that was occupied for nearly one hundred and fifty years. Nails are most common, followed by broken dishes and glasses. She’s also found a few household items such as scissors, thimbles, and furniture handles. Evelyn will like the bits of expensive porcelain and wine glasses. But as Meghan suspected, there are far more “middling” ceramics in the assemblage. Tin-glazed earthenware likely held the everyday meals in the 1700s, not Chinese porcelain.
She stands to pass a bucket of soil to one of her students for screening. As she does, she hears her name called from the woods. Turning, she sees a flash of light in the trees. As best as she can tell, it’s coming from the same position as Tuesday. Assuming Sandberg is watching, she waves and gives a thumbs up.
A few minutes later, Sandberg rejoins her. “So that was the right spot?”
“I think so. I really didn’t give it much thought before.”
“It makes the most sense. I was standing in a hunting blind. There’s a good view of your excavations from there. And with the binoculars, you were clear as day. Anyone with a decent zoom lens could have taken that photo.”
“I don’t suppose they dropped a business card or anything helpful like that, did they?”
Sandberg laughs. “I should be so lucky. There was nothing. Any ideas why someone would spy on your work?”
“Are you kidding? This isn’t some temple in South America where a king’s buried with a ton of gold. And don’t tell Evelyn I said this, but nobody really famous or important lived here. The Walkers may have been local gentry, but they weren’t George Washington or Thomas Jefferson. No one other than family, local historians, and historic archaeologists like me would be interested in this.”
“What do you think of Mrs. Browne’s idea that it was Frank Sloma?”
“I suppose it could be. At first I thought he was just someone who likes to stir up trouble. But now, I think there’s more to it.”
“What changed your mind?”
“I did a search for him online, and I didn’t find anything. Not a single hit.”
“I’m not surprised. I can access more resources than you, and he’s not there, either.”
“Oh,” Meghan says, unsure what to think.
“And he and his wife, if that’s who she really is, didn’t come down here this weekend. Do you remember him saying anything about himself?”
“Just that he was an accountant somewhere around DC and had a couple of kids. Funny, for all his talking, not much of it was about him.”
“Some people are good at that. I’ll bet we never hear from Frank Sloma again.”
“What do you mean?”
“I mean he doesn’t exist. It was a cover.”
Meghan can’t choke back a laugh. “Are you saying he’s a spy?”
Sandberg smiles. “Like the CIA? No. Think business.”
“But this is a B&B, not a Fortune 500 company. Who would spy on this place?”
“Not the place. The owners. Don’t ever let them hear you say nobody important lived here. I may not be a big-city detective, but I know Douglas Browne’s a senior partner in a politically connected DC law firm. Men like him make enemies every day.”
“Point taken. But why would Frank Sloma, whoever he is, want a story in the paper? He must have known the Brownes would assume it was him. Why bring that attention to himself?”
“I’m still working on that one. But I’m sure he had his reasons.”
Sandberg checks his watch. “Time for me to go. I’ve got more serious cases to deal with.” He grimaces. “Don’t tell the Brownes or my chief I said that. Good to see you again, Dr. Bode. Let me know if you see anything else strange out here.”
Meghan returns to her excavations. While she works on a test unit, she wonders about Frank Sloma, corporate spy. The idea seems absurd—except for the fact that he apparently doesn’t exist. Is someone out to get Douglas Browne in some way? A client he unsuccessfully defended? Someone he sent to prison?
Concentrate on the archaeology, she tells herself. Whatever’s going on with Sloma and the Brownes doesn’t involve you.
I hope you’ll stay tuned for Part 12 next Tuesday.