Meghan swears under her breath when she finally finds an open spot in a parking garage near Douglas Browne’s law office in northwest DC. There’s no time to grab a cup of coffee before meeting with him. At least she’ll have only a short walk to the Metro station for her afternoon research at the National Archives.
She wears dress pants and a good blouse, but the outfit is no match for the receptionist’s designer suit and stiletto heels. The firm must pay the support staff well—or provide a clothing allowance. Douglas comes downstairs within only a few minutes.
“Thanks for coming, Meghan. I appreciate it,” he says as they take the elevator to his top-floor corner office.
“How’s Evelyn feeling?” she asks.
“Devastated. She takes her family history so seriously. You’d think her father killed Josiah Kent, not her great-great-whatever grandfather. Can I pour you a drink?”
Do lawyers have whiskey at ten in the morning? Meghan wonders. “Um, a glass of water would be nice, thank you. I take it you’re not into genealogy,” she says as Douglas offers her a seat in a masculine, but comfortable, leather chair. She has a clear view of the Washington Monument standing tall to the southeast.
Douglas pulls a pitcher of water from a small refrigerator hidden behind a panel in a bookshelf that takes up an entire wall and is filled with legal volumes. Meghan’s relieved when he pours a glass for himself.
“Not really. But Evelyn loves reading the book her grandmother put together in the 1930s. She’s the one who did all the Walker research so she could get her daughters into the DAR.”
“Oh,” Meghan says. She thinks of groups like the Daughters of the American Revolution as elitist, even though she qualifies for membership.
“But there’s no evidence that Abraham killed Kent,” she continues. “It could have been anyone in the house.”
“You know that’s not what people will think. Personally, I don’t give a rat’s ass what happened between Josiah Kent and Abraham Walker in 1779. Maybe Abraham had a good reason to kill him. But it matters to Evelyn. People joking about her ancestors is bad enough. Saying one of them was a murderer is more than she can bear.”
“It sounds like you haven’t convinced her to keep the work going.”
“Not yet. But I’m taking the “genie’s out of the bottle” approach. Since we can’t undo what you found, we should keep going forward. You know, show people we’re still the same people and not afraid of the truth. And frankly, it’s good publicity.”
“I hope it works. But I don’t know what to do now. Evelyn doesn’t want me in the field. Do I put everything on hold and wait for you to say come back?”
“No. I want you to go through the old records. Maybe you can find some dirt on Kent. Or something good about Abraham Walker. Anything that would make Evelyn feel better. Just don’t say anything to her about it. I don’t want to get her hopes up.”
Douglas stares out the window for a few moments, tapping his fingers on his glass before turning back to Meghan.
“I think she did it.”
“Set the fire.”
“You didn’t hear me say this. Evelyn told the police she was in her office before Jackson discovered the fire. But I had walked past it a few times that evening, and she wasn’t there. I assumed she was in her sitting room. Now, I’m not so sure.”
“Maybe that’s what she meant,” Meghan says, grasping for another option. “She was so upset Wednesday morning, maybe she just misspoke.”
“Possibly. But that’s why I don’t want you to say anything about the research to her. I don’t want to upset her even more.”
Meghan leans back in her chair, trying to absorb the idea of Evelyn setting the fire. “Do you honestly believe she would do something like that?”
“Despite her size, she’s a strong woman with strong emotions. Sometimes people like that snap when their world changes.”
“I suppose so. And on top of Josiah Kent’s skeleton, you’ve got Frank Sloma and the newspaper lawsuit to deal with.”
Douglas shifts in his chair. “Not exactly. We won’t take the Suburban Daily to court.”
“Oh, I thought Jackson said you would.”
“Evelyn still wants to, but after talking with some of my colleagues, it’s best if we don’t. Lawsuits usually aren’t good publicity. This one might have people thinking we’re trying to hide something. ”
“Irene said something like that, too.”
“Irene Kristoff, the physical anthropologist who’s working with me. Even before the fire, I was worried that Evelyn might drop the project because of Kent. Irene said trying to cover up a story just gets people more interested. She also said I should appeal to Evelyn’s business side.”
“She’s right. That’s what I’m doing. And while I do that, when can you start with the old records?”
“Today. I need to look at the agricultural census schedules at the Archives for another project. I can go over the Revolutionary War service records and pension applications while I’m there. Sometimes good info is hidden in those. We’re not looking at houses until Sunday, so I’ll go to Richmond tomorrow and see what I can find on the Kent family.”
“Good. Keep me posted. Use my work email and phone so Evelyn doesn’t catch wind of this.”
Meghan grabs an early lunch and takes the Metro to the National Archives. She soon finds the information she needs for another research project in the nineteenth-century agricultural schedules. So she turns to the Revolutionary War Pension Applications. Of course, murdered Josiah Kent couldn’t apply, but his widow might have.
The search is a dead end. None of the Kent applications match Josiah. As an afterthought, she looks for Isaac and Abraham Walker in the index. The Abraham Walkers don’t fit Evelyn’s fourth great-grandfather, so she continues up the alphabet to Isaac—and finds two Isaac Walkers from Virginia who could be Abraham’s father.
She retrieves the roll of microfilm with the full records and scrolls to the Isaacs, hoping for enough details to figure out which is the right one. Some pension files contain a wealth of genealogical data, but most don’t. It’s not her lucky day. She learns only that one Isaac received a pension while the other was denied because he didn’t provide sufficient proof of his service. And both men were from the same county.
Meghan reads the entries again.
Two Isaac Walkers from the same county? she thinks. Which one is Abraham’s father?
Meghan takes a deep breath. Genealogy may be a popular hobby, but her experience shows a lot of people get it wrong. Poorly researched family trees dominate the big websites. Some for her own ancestors make her cringe. Men fathering children years after they died. Others said to have died in one year, even though records show they lived another ten.
How good a researcher was Evelyn’s grandmother? she wonders.
A glimmer of hope rises in her mind. She has a date tomorrow with probate records in Richmond.
The sun has begun its downward descent as she leaves the Archives, but the late January day is mild. Even when she arrives at the Metro stop by Douglas’s office, there’s still good light for the walk to her car.
For a few moments she slows her steps and considers stopping in to tell him her ideas. But he had said he was in meetings all afternoon. Besides, she could be wrong. Maybe she shouldn’t get his hopes up.
As she nears Douglas’s building, the door opens, and a man steps out, heading in the same direction as Meghan’s garage.
She stops in her tracks. There’s no mistaking the face she sees before the man turns away. It’s Frank Sloma.
Meghan holds back, not wanting Sloma to see her. Luckily, he turns down another block, and she can return to her car without incident. Once there, she stares at the dingy wall of the structure, shifting her cell phone from one hand to the other while she thinks.
An advertising agency shares Douglas’s building, but how likely is it that Sloma works for them or is one of their clients? This can’t be a coincidence. Detective Tom Sandberg’s words about Douglas come back to her.
He could have hired Frank Sloma to get people thinking about the old stories and spice up your work.
Maybe that’s why Douglas wouldn’t pursue a lawsuit against the Suburban Daily. Maybe he did hire Frank Sloma to generate talk and publicity for the B&B. If so, how Evelyn would feel if she knew about it? But, more importantly, there’s still an active police investigation. She calls Sandberg’s office, leaving a message explaining what she saw before driving home.
I hope you’ll stay tuned for Part 16 next Tuesday.