Meghan arrives at the farm early Wednesday morning, where Jackson Carter waits for her in the parking lot. Her nose crinkles at an unfamiliar smell in the air.
“Everyone’s at the house, Dr. Bode. Miss Evelyn is in a right state.”
“Last night I was leaving my office around seven o’clock. And I noticed a light coming from your site. It took a few seconds to register, but then I realized it was a fire.”
“A fire? In an empty field? How does that happen?”
“I don’t know, but the police and fire department are checking it out. They want to talk with you at the house first.”
They walk to the house in silence, and Meghan’s thoughts race. The fire must explain the smell in the air. But there’s nothing on the site that’s flammable. She doesn’t even leave the wood shaker screens behind at the end of a day. There’s no way the fire could have started naturally.
Upon entering, Meghan sees the current guests seated in the dining room as they talk with the police about anything they might have seen or heard. Jackson leads Meghan to a drawing room, where Evelyn is seated on a small sofa, crying, as her husband tries to comfort her. Detective Tom Sandberg sits in a nearby chair.
Evelyn looks up. “I’m so sorry, Meghan, it’s terrible. Why would anyone want to destroy the site?”
“Destroy it? What did they do?”
“We’re not sure,” Sandberg says. “The fire department wants you to look at it with them. They don’t usually deal with this kind of scene.”
“It’s all too much, Meghan. Finding that skeleton, that awful Mr. Sloma taking photos for a newspaper story. People are beginning to talk. They’re saying Abraham Walker really was a Tory, and he killed some Patriot during the War.”
“We don’t know that. Anyone in the house could have done it.”
“It doesn’t matter. That awful skeleton has ruined all my plans. What kind of museum can I do now? Why did you have to find him?”
Meghan searches for the right words. Her dream project is crashing around her. And she can’t remember what Irene suggested she say if this situation arose.
“It’s not Meghan’s fault,” Douglas says. “The legends were always there. And there’s usually some kernel of truth behind them. She just happened to find that kernel.”
“It might not have been Abraham,” Meghan says weakly, rubbing her neck and trying to think of something encouraging to say.
“It doesn’t matter,” Evelyn says again and then blows her nose. “Everyone will say it was him. I can’t go on with this.”
Sandberg clears his throat. “Maybe you two can talk about this when you’re less upset, Mrs. Browne. Right now I need Dr. Bode to come out to the site and help the arson unit.”
“I’ll go with you, if you don’t mind,” Douglas says. “Maybe I can help.”
He hands Evelyn a fresh tissue. “You’ll be all right if I go with them for a few minutes, won’t you?”
Evelyn sniffles and nods. “Don’t be too long.”
“I won’t,” he says, kissing her cheek.
“I take it archaeological sites don’t spontaneously combust,” Sandberg says as they walk to the site.
“No, there’s no fuel,” Meghan explains. “We’re not in the middle of a dry forest, and there’s no crop stubble. But if you want to destroy this site, a fire alone won’t do it.”
“It’s a historic site. We don’t need things like soil samples for dating techniques that a fire would ruin. God forbid there are any more human skeletons, but even if there were, they’re not excavated yet. Unless they’re just below the surface, the heat wouldn’t alter them. Any ceramics that were exposed might be burnt so badly that we can’t figure out what type they were, but we’ve got plenty of others that tell us what we need to know. A fire can’t destroy enough of the archaeological remains to skew my analyses.”
“So your excavations could go on with good results?” Douglas asks.
“Well … yes. But it sounded like Evelyn doesn’t want me to finish.”
“To be honest, that’s why I came out here. I want you to keep working. We’ll have to wait for the investigation to finish, and Evelyn needs time to get back on board. But this is great publicity for us. There’s already a spike in reservation requests. Can you come to my office later this week to talk about it? It would be too hard on Evelyn to do it here.”
Good publicity, that’s what Irene told me to stress, Meghan thinks. Maybe Douglas can keep this project going.
“Um, sure. Will Friday work? I teach a class and lab tomorrow.”
Douglas pulls out his phone to check his schedule. “How about ten o’clock? I’m in meetings all afternoon.”
“That works. Then I can hit the Archives for some research on another project.”
“Perfect. I’ll see you then. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’ll try to get Evelyn settled down.”
Meghan and Sandberg continue to the site, where the arson unit is working. An expanded square of “Crime Scene” tape encircles her smaller area, which had been set up to protect visitors. She never dreamed it would be the old manor house that needed safekeeping.
The soils are damp, and the odd smell is stronger here. Meghan realizes it’s from the chemicals used to extinguish the blaze. The biggest problem will be removing the contaminated surface soils. They must be hazardous waste now.
“You’ll have to stay on this side of the tape,” Sandberg says. “For safety and to not compromise their work. But can you tell whether anything was done besides pouring gasoline over the area?”
Meghan studies the now-visible features. The plastic coverings have melted, leaving only fluttering fragments held by cinder blocks. The exposed bricks of the cellar are singed, and a few spalls lie on the floor. Otherwise the walls are intact. Except for some limited scuffing of the topsoil, probably from the firefighting crew, the damage doesn’t look bad.
“Not that I can see. If you want to destroy this site, you’d have to take a backhoe to it or blow it up. But I’d guess whoever did this wouldn’t know that.”
“Any ideas who might want to try?” Sandberg asks.
“None. It’s not like I stumbled on a modern crime scene and a murderer wants to cover his tracks. Who cares about a murder from the Revolutionary War?”
“Maybe a descendant who can’t face the fact that her ancestor might have been a murderer?”
“Evelyn?” Meghan whispers. “Are you serious?”
“I’ve seen people do worse for less cause. You heard her say she can’t go on with this. Douglas Browne may think your Josiah Kent is great publicity, but I doubt his wife sees it that way.”
“I can’t believe she’d do such a thing. Why not say Douglas Browne did it for more publicity?”
“That’s possible, too. He could have hired Frank Sloma to get people thinking about the old stories and spice up your work. Maybe Jackson Carter knows of a legend that says a slave killed Kent, and he doesn’t want any proof. Or maybe Riverton Developers wants to distract the Brownes and keep them from fighting the new building next door. Plenty of suspects with opportunity and motive.”
“I hadn’t realized that.”
“Apparently the equipment shed’s rarely locked,” Sandberg says. “The gas came from there. We found the empty cans back on the shelf. Any prints are probably from the Brownes and Jackson Carter, just what you’d expect. That doesn’t mean one of them didn’t do it. But we’ll see if any don’t match. None of the guests remember anyone smelling of gas in the house last night. If it was one of the Brownes, they were careful.”
Meghan walks around the tape barrier to warm her feet, looking for her own clues to the extent of the damage. Sandberg follows her.
“Is it a crime if Evelyn or Douglas did it?” she asks. “Or Frank Sloma if Douglas hired him?”
“Tricky. Definitely if they file an insurance claim. But I doubt insurance covers an archaeological site. I’d have to check the laws on the gasoline. There might be something on improper disposal or discharge of hazardous material. Otherwise, I doubt it. Anyone else, though, it’s arson.”
“Any idea when I can get back to work? That is, if Douglas can convince Evelyn to go on? I’m teaching another field course, and my students could use the time on this site. Unless Evelyn does shut it down. Then I have to come up with something else.”
Sandberg smiles. “As long as there’s no charred body, stashed drugs, or other TV standby, the arson team’ll be done in a few days tops.”
“Great,” Meghan says, remembering her first encounter with Tom Sandberg last fall. She felt the complete idiot talking about crime scene investigators taking over the excavation of a skeleton in a county park. Sandberg had informed her that real police work didn’t look anything like TV.
“So you don’t see any other signs of damage?”
“None. Nothing’s been dug up, just burned.”
“Good. Then I won’t keep you. I’ll let you know if these guys find anything.”
Meghan briefly considers stopping back at the house, but decides against it. Evelyn is too upset to talk about the archaeological work. I’ll wait till Friday and talk to Douglas. Maybe he’ll have gotten through to her by then.
I hope you’ll stay tuned for Part 15 next Tuesday.