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July 1, Present-Day
I sat on the brick foundation of Miss Maggie's outside cellar door, swatting at the mosquitos feasting on various parts of my anatomy. My scalp, still wet from a quick shower, was the only cool part of me. The night was so hot I might as well have been standing in front of the ovens at my cousin Angelo's pizza parlor. At least there, the heady aroma of pepperoni was a perk.
Out in front of the house, one of two patrol cars the color of milk chocolate still had its lights on, twin beams of red and white pulsing across the edge of Bell Run's forest every half second, giving me that queasy feeling my stomach always gets when I look at strobe lights.
I tried gazing up at the sky instead, which was violet-blue in the last glow of twilight. Stars were trying to cut through the haze, their light flickering like fluorescent lamps in need of new starters. A solitary bat fluttered by, headed for the river and supper. The dope. All the mosquitos were right here, eating me alive.
Across the side yard, Deputy Dwight Pearson turned on a portable floodlight, washing out sky and stars and attracting an instant cloud of moths. The beam silhouetted the sheriff's precise but ineffectual-looking posture and Miss Maggie's bent-over but dynamic one. Dynamic even in baggy shorts with her bony knees showing.
"Use your head, Dennis," she was saying. "This ground hasn't been disturbed for as long as I can remember." She jabbed an arthritic forefinger at the small strip of churned-up dirt betweenthemchurned up nearly three hours earlier by me, using only a gardening fork and visions of juicy homegrown tomatoes. The two-foot-deep hole at one end of the strip was my doing, too, after unearthing what I'd thought was a piece of odd-shaped tree root. Until I noticed that it had teeth.
"That skull belongs to a life lived at least nine decades ago," Miss Maggie concluded, her estimate based on the fact that she'd called this piece of real estate home all of her ninety-one years and she had a black hole of a memory. "Considering all the action Bell Run saw during the Civil War, we've probably got a soldier here. I'm not going to let you ruin a possible archaeological site."
"We'll wait to hear what the M.E. says, Miz Shelby," Brackin replied, being above all a man who liked to form his own opinions. I'll allow that's not a bad trait for the guru of local law enforcement, but Stoke County had a low crime rate and Brackin didn't get to form opinions often enough to stay in practice. His stubbornness tended to be less motivated by objectivity than by a desire to stall, so as not to resume his Maytag-repairmanlike existence any sooner than he had to.
I stood up, hoping the mosquitos wouldn't be able to find the part of me farthest from the ground, which worked for all of five seconds. From my new vantage point, I surveyed the county's two deputies, now leaning against the side rail of our front porch, shovels in their hands, waiting for the go-ahead. From this distance, Dwight Pearson and Brenda Owens looked like twinsboth tall, blond and big-boned, wearing identical uniforms, which tonight were equally wilted with the heat, though Brenda had come on duty for the night shift less than fifteen minutes ago. Neither deputy appeared terribly anxious to do hard labor in this weather.
During Miss Maggie's lifetime, she'd taught eighth-grade history to just about every native of this part of Virginia, including Brackin, and now she gave him one of her teacher glares, guaranteed to make any kid admit to throwing spitballs. Brackin didn't admit to anything, but he did shut up. And luckily, the cell phone hanging on his belt let out an electronic cackle at that moment. He walked a dozen steps away from her as he answered.
Miss Maggie turned her attention back to the hole, grinning down into it like a proud parent. "This is so cool, Pat." I'd lost count of how many times she'd said that in the last two-plus hours. If I'd struck gold, I couldn't have made her happier. Historians are odd that way. I should explain that Miss Maggie had spent the past thirty years researching the history of her estate and tracking down the last descendant of the Bell family, who'd lived here until the Civil War left Bell Run in ruins. I was that last descendant. Long story short: Miss Maggie had brought me here in May. I stayed.
Anyway, tonight, when I'd spotted the teeth on the jawboneafter dropping it in horror, then gingerly scooping it into my little trowel and holding it at arm's lengthI'd taken it inside to show Miss Maggie. She'd hauled me back outside and had me show her the exact position of the bone as I'd found it, which probably wasn't as accurate as I could have been because I wasn't willing to touch the thing with more than two fingertips. Then she'd made me help her get down on her kneesnot an easy movement given her arthritiswhere she took up the trowel and gently scraped the dirt away until a bony face seemed to float to the surface. That's when she'd said it was time to bring in experts.
"I still don't understand why you called the sheriff," I said, inching closer. My Italian superstitions were warring with my curiosity and my superstitions were the odds-on favorite, so I stopped inching when I could see the raised eye ridges of the skull. They were almost the same shade of gray-beige as the surrounding soil.
"Law says you have to file a police report if you find human remains. Figured I'd get the formalities out of the way before Emmy shows up."
Emmy was Dr. Emmaline Brewster, an anthropologist from the University of Virginia and another former student of Miss Maggie's. She'd phoned Emmy first to give her the details, and within the half hour we'd gotten a call back from her that everything was arranged. She and one of her lab assistants would be here later tonight.
I glanced up at Brackin, but he, still on the phone, was heading over to his deputies. "You didn't tell the sheriff you already contacted the university, did you?"
"No use complicating the matter. I'll tell Elwood when he shows up." Elwood was the doctor the sheriff summoned whenever he needed a medical examiner. For Miss Maggie, everyone in the county was on a first-name basis.
Miss Maggie let a spontaneous giggle bubble up out of her insides, a pretty scary sound coming through her raspy old vocal cords. "This is the first historic find for the Julia Bell Foundation, Pat. Aren't you excited?"
I hadn't thought of it that way. The whole concept of the Foundationthat is, setting aside the majority of Bell Run's acreage as a historical and environmental classroomwas only six weeks old. The ink had barely dried on the preliminary paperwork. Yet here we were with our first project. It was exciting, but I wished I'd found something more along the lines of a lost city. Finding bones had to be a bad omen.
"Once word gets out," Miss Maggie was saying, "this is bound to bring in donations"
My ears pricked up. Bad omen or not, the Bell Foundation needed bucks. I wondered if Yorick would take offense at being a poster child.
"I can't get over it," she continued, a regular motormouth in her enthusiasm. "All the years I've lived in this house and never knew this was here. Then you come along andwhat made you dig here, Pat? Weren't you going to put your garden on the other side of the house?"
I nodded. "I thought I wanted a spot that gets sun most of the day." And, I didn't say aloud, the lazy couch-potato inside me wanted a bare piece of ground, where I wouldn't have to chop up sod now or fight weeds later on. "But I couldn't get my fork more than a few inches down into the soil over there."
"Well, what with the drought we've been having these last three weeks, the ground's probably baked into adobe."
Too true. When I'd come here to Bell Run in May, wildflowers had been at high tide, filling every inch of clearing between the house and the surrounding forest. Now only tidal pools of white clover and buttercups remained in the shadier areas, like here on the east side of the house. Everywhere else was matted brown straw.
Miss Maggie had been tolerant of my gardening whim. After living in an apartment all my adult life, I'd felt almost obligated to plant a few tomatoes and peppers, though it was way late in the season to expect much of a crop, even down here in Virginia where the first frost might hold off an extra week or two.
A cynical little inner voice kept whispering that I was really marking my territory.
I justified it by telling myself I was honoring my Italian heritage by continuing one of my family's traditions. Thing was, where Dad put his veggies had never been decided by soil or sun or drainage. No, Mom said he had to plant down at the end of our small yard because the garden attracted sparrowsthey nibbled the lettuce and took daily dust baths between the rows of basil sprouts. And Mom didn't want birds pooping anywhere near her clotheslines.
This, I explained to Miss Maggie, was the extent of my landscaping knowledge. "Then this morning I realized that if the wildflowers had dried up and died out back, my plants probably would, too. Actually, I had this recurring dream about it the past few nights: I'm trying to loosen up the hard ground when one of the local farm boys comes up the path from the creek and tells me I should dig over here instead. So I decided to see if my subconscious knew more about gardening than I did."
Miss Maggie raised her eyebrows. "Good thing it was your dream. I wouldn't take farming advice from any of the local kids. Football advice maybe. Or drinking and girls."
I shook my head. "No, he wasn't anyone I've met. He was youngeight, ten maybe. A black kid. Real skinny, light complexion. Big mole over one eyebrow."
"Mole?" Magnolia Shelby wasn't easy to shock, but that made her jaw go slack. She grabbed at my forearm, but our combined sweat made her hand slip to my wrist. "This boy in your dream, what was his name?"
Her reaction spooked me and my stomach rolled from more than the strobe effect of the siren lights. "I don't know. He didn't say."
She let go my arm, but now I got her teacher look. "I guess Beth Ann must have told you."
Beth Ann Lee and her father, Hugh, were our closest neighbors, over on the other side of the creek. Even though I was nearly three times her thirteen years, Beth Ann and I had a sort of big and little sis relationship. "Told me what?"
Miss Maggie shifted her eyes from me back to Yorick. "Told you about Mance. Because if she didn't, it means Bell Run has itself another ghost."